Destutt de Tracy’s Life (1754-1836)
Destutt de Tracy was born in Paris on July 20, 1754 and died in Paris on
March 10, 1836. He was a philosophe, one of the founders in the 1790s of
the classical liberal republican group known as the Idéologues (which
included Cabanis, Condorcet, Constant, Daunou, Say, Madame de Staël), a
politician under several regimes spanning the Revolution and the
Restoration, and an influential author. When the Estates General were
called to meet in 1789 he, although a member of an aristocratic family
which had been ennobled twice (hence his name), joined the Third Estate
and renounced his title. He was later elected to the Constituent
Assembly and served in the army in 1792 under the Marquis de Lafayette.
During the Terror he was imprisoned and only escaped execution because
Robespierre beat him to the scaffold. It was during his period of
imprisonment that he read the works of Condillac and Locke and began
working on his theory of idéologie. He was made a member of the Institut
National in 1796 (he was part of the Section of the Analysis of
Sensations and Ideas in the Class of Moral and Political Sciences, which
was later suppressed by Napoleon in 1803) and later appointed to the
French Academy (1808). During the Directory Tracy was active in
educational reform, especially in creating a national system of
education. His membership of the Senate during the Consulate and Empire
gave him many opportunities to express his “ideological” opposition to
Napoleon’s illiberal regime, which culminated in 1814 with Tracy’s call
for the removal of the Emperor. For this, he was rewarded with the
restoration of his noble title by Louis XVIII later that year.
Nevertheless, he continued to support the liberal opposition during the
restoration of Louis XVIII and Charles X. Although Tracy was active in
bringing to power a more liberal, constitutional monarchy during the
July Revolution of 1830 he quickly became disillusioned with the

Tracy coined the term “ideology” shortly after his appointment to the
Institute National in 1796 to refer to his “science of ideas” which
attempted to create a secure foundation for all the moral and political
sciences by closely examining the sensations and the ideas about those
sensations which arose in human beings as they interacted with their
physical environment. His deductive methodology for the social sciences
has much in common with the Austrian school of economics which emerged
after 1870. For Tracy, “Ideology” was a liberal social and economic
philosophy which provided the basis for a strong defense of private
property, individual liberty, the free market, and constitutional limits
to the power of the state (preferably in a republican form modeled on
that of the USA). For Napoleon, “ideology” was a term of abuse which he
directed against his liberal opponents in the Institut National and it
was this negative sense of the term which Marx had in mind in his
writings on Ideology (he called Tracy a “fischblütige
Bourgeoisdoktrinär”—a fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire).

The impact of Tracy’s political and economic ideas was considerable. His
Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (1811) was much
admired by Thomas Jefferson, who translated it and had it published in
America at a time when a French edition was impossible due to Napoleon’s
censorship. In the Commentary Tracy criticised Montesquieu’s defence of
monarchy and supported American-style republicanism which operated in
the context of a laissez-faire economic order. Tracy’s multi-volume work
Elements of Ideology (1801-1815) is his magnum opus. Volume 4, which
appeared in 1815 and which dealt with political economy, was also
translated and published by Jefferson in 1817. The Elements of Ideology
was quickly translated into the major European languages and influenced
a new generation of Italian, Spanish and Russian liberals who were
involved in revolutionary activity in the early 1820s (the Carbonari in
France and Italy, and the Decembrists in Russia). One of Tracy’s key
social and economic ideas was that “society is purely and solely a
continual series of exchanges” and his broader social theory is based
upon working out the implications of this notion of free exchange.
Within France, Tracy’s work influenced the thinking of the novelist
Stendhal, the historian Augustin Thierry, and the political economists
and lawyers Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer.


Works by Destutt de Tracy

Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Jefferson (1811) (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969). French 1819 edition online at

Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, A Treatise on Political Economy,trans. Thomas Jefferson (1817) (reprinted New York 1970). French 1823 edition online at

Works about Destutt de Tracy

Head, Brian, Ideology and Social Science: Destutt de Tracy and French Liberalism (Dordrecht, M. Nijhoff; Boston, Hingham, MA, 1985).

Kaiser, T., “Politics and Political Economy in the Thought of the Idéologues,” History of Political Economy, 1980, pp. 141-60.

Kennedy, Emmet, A Philosophe in the Age of Revolution: Destutt de Tracyand the Origins of “Ideology” (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1978).

Klein, Daniel, “Deductive economic methodology in the French Enlightenment: Condillac and Destutt de Tracy,” History of Political Economy, 1985, 17:1, pp. 51-71.

Venturi, Franco, “Destutt de Tracy and the Liberal Revolutions” in Studies in Free Russia, trans. Fausta Segre Walsby and Margaret O’Dell(University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 59-93.

Welch, Cheryl B., Liberty and Utility: The French Idéologues and the Transformation of Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press,1984).


*Dr. David M. Hart is the newly appointed Director of the Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty Project. Previously he taught history at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. His research interests include 18th and 19th century French liberal thought.