Frederic Bastiat: biographical notes
Claude Frederic Bastiat was born in Bayonne, a small provincial town on the French side of the Pyrenees along the shore of the Bay of Biscay sometime in June 1801 (some biographers give the exact date as June 19, others as the 30th). Frederic Bastiat’s father Pierre was a prominent merchant in the town. Frederic’s mother died in 1808 and immediately after her death his father moved the family to an even smaller town to the north of Bayonne. Mugron is in the valley of the Adour river and the Bastiat estate had previously belonged to the Marquis of Poyanne. This is the place that was to be Frederic’s home for most of his life.
Frederic Bastiat was hardly a tortured child prodigy, his father wrote on him:
He is as good as he is lazy. If he is going to do something in life, he is going to have to change radically. Frederic is always pleasant and good natured; but he has a lazy streak that is without equal
Frederic’s father did not live to see whether his son would change radically and do “something”, he died in 1810. Frederic was left under the guardianship of his Aunt Justine. Frederic studied first at a school in Bayonne but was later sent to Saint-Sever because it had a better reputation. Bastiat finally enrolled at the Benedictine college of Sorèze. He never did finish his degree but had the chance to meet M. V. Calmètes who was to be a close friend for many years. The lack of a complete formal education appears to have irked Bastiat because one of his earliest essays was a critique of the French education system.
Bastiat tried his hand at business, working for his uncle in Bayonne. It was here that he gained first-hand knowledge of the manner in which duties, tarrifs and regulations affect trade, knowledge that was to serve him in good stead later in life. An interest in questions of Political Economy was sparked and Bastiat began to study the works of Jean-Baptiste Say and Adam Smith with rigour. Bastiat was not drawn to business and by 1824 he was entertaining thoughts of travelling to Paris to further his formal education, it was at this time that his grandfather summoned him to the estate in Mugron and Bastiat had to shelve his plans.
By 1825 Bastiat’s grandfather was dead and Frederric found himself the owner of an estate and farm. Enthused with the fervour of technology and progress Frederic attempted to institute reforms in the farming practices of the region. Neither of his initiates met with much success or interest and he eventualy gave up on trying to enlighten his tenants and neighbours at least as far as farming was concerned. Luckily he found a companion in the form of Felix Coudroy, the owner of a neighbouring estate. Felix was an ardent socialist and an engaging conversationalist. Bastiat and Coudroy embarked on a course of study and debate that challenged their minds, skills and beliefs. Somewhere in this course of study, Bastiat seems to have converted Coudroy to his cause, nevertheless the two friends spoke and read for over 20 years on a daily basis.
When he was approaching the age of 30, Bastiat married Marie Hiard, but they were estranged immediately following the marriage and this relationship was effectively annulled. The circumstances surrounding the marriage are uncertain but it seems to have been arranged by Marie’s parents and it was reportedly the fall-out of what is described as an “innocent liason”. The marriage was in February 1831 and we have one letter from Bastiat to his wife but like other details about Bastiat’s private life this incident is shrouded in mystery. The disappearance of a number of Bastiat’s letters and manuscripts has thwarted attempts to resolve the questions, the policy of removing personal references before publication that the editors of Bastiat’s Oeuvres Complete adopted means that we have only their versions of most of Bastiat’s letters.