Auguste Bertholet

Bertholet is completing a doctoral dissertation in the Department of History at the University of Lausanne. He studies languages of economic and political reform in Bern and its agrarian subject territories of Aargau and the Pays de Vaud, placing them within the larger context of the European Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century Bern possessed a distinctive combination of political and economic elements. It was an aristocratic republic whose political institutions were controlled by a small group of patrician families, a closed élite which also ruled over Bern’s extensive subject territories. While the subject territories were predominently agrarian, the Bernese treasury was a highly active investor in international capital markets. Together with its professional mercenary armies, these elements tied Bern into the fiscal, financial and military fabric of the rest of Europe in a highly specific manner, which in turn had significant consequences for the internal fiscal, military and economic structures of the Republic itself.

The thinkers of Enlightenment Europe were naturally very interested in the case of Bern. One of these, the marquis de Mirabeau, conducted a lifelong correspondence with a friend from the Pays de Vaud, Frédéric de Sacconay, who responded to Mirabeau’s many questions and supplied him with information about Bern’s political and economic circumstances. Bertholet has worked extensively on Mirabeau’s correspondence with Sacconay, which was discovered only a few years ago, and which provides important new insights into the development of Mirabeau’s thought and the origins of Physiocracy.

Bertholet’s dissertation offers a comprehensive reconstruction of the Vaudois intellectual universe that Sacconay inhabited, in order to contribute to the study of many other figures besides Mirabeau, such as Gibbon, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who were also careful observers of Bern and the Vaud. As the case of Mirabeau and Sacconay illustrates, the Pays de Vaud was often the primary point of contact between the Republic of Letters and the Republic of Bern. The Vaud and its capital of Lausanne constituted the center of a thriving network of Enlightenment thinkers which stretched across Europe. In this respect, it was Lausanne rather than Bern itself which served as the true intellectual capital of the Republic. Vaudois thinkers and writers fostered the exchange of ideas through academies such as the Moral Society of Lausanne, just as they occupied prominent positions within the Economic Society of Bern.

Despite the Vaudois population’s tolerance of its subject status, thanks to the stability it offered, some thinkers believed that the reluctance of the Bernese to adapt to emerging industrialization and globalized trade – in order to preserve their dominance within the social hierarchy – was a cause of decline. An abundant literature of political economy flourished from the Seven Years’ War onwards to help find a recipe for reform. These theories aimed to enable the subjects to pursue avenues of social mobility through the economy, without weakening the political power of the patricians, to relieve Bern of its passive reliance on European commercial and military competition, without losing its sources of income, and to become part of a global dynamic of sustainable and continuous development.

Bertholet’s research therefore seeks to highlight and understand the role of Vaudois thinkers in establishing Bern as a key participant in Enlightenment reform discourses about economic and political reform. He is particularly interested in the way in which the political and economic circumstances of the Vaud as an agrarian subject territory shaped its consumption, dissemination and production of wider European debates about economic and administrative reform. These debates involved wide-ranging efforts to understand and theorize more general subjects involving trade, demographics, taxation, finance and the relationship between agriculture and manufacturing.