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The Fruits of Revolution; Property Rights, Litigation and French Agriculture 1700-1860


Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent (1988) The Fruits of Revolution; Property Rights, Litigation and French Agriculture 1700-1860. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/098J-VD59.


This research, unlike other studies, examines the French Revolution, not through a debate on its economic, social or political causes, but through its economic consequences. The research shows that the lack of investment in agriculture prior to the French Revolution was due to institutional constraints inherent to the Old Regime. Reforms, undertaken during the Revolution of 1789, were responsible for most of the nineteenth century successes.

The argument is carried out through an examination of the political economy of drainage and irrigation. Drainage and irrigation were two types of investment in agriculture that increased the productivity of land and extended the area under cultivation. Both were important means of achieving growth in agriculture. The research shows that transaction costs involved with such activities were very high during the Old Regime but were substantially reduced after 1789.

Chapter One introduces the issues and makes the necessary definition for the study. Chapter Two is an empirical study of drainage in Normandy from 1700 to 1860. The chapter shows that drainage would have been profitable in the absence of transaction costs during the period 1700-1789 yet no drainage occurred. The problems of transaction costs lay with endless litigation over property rights and the inability of property rights owners to write binding contracts. Resources were, thus, expended to redistribute property rights rather than to make improvements. 1be Revolutionary reforms removed all causes for litigation and gave the state the authority to enforce contracts between landowners. As a result of the reforms of the Revolution, most of the marshes in Normandy were drained from 1820 to 1850.

Chapter Three examines irrigation supply in Provence from 1700 to 1860. As in Chapter Two, quantitative evidence suggests that, in the absence of transaction costs, irrigation should have been very profitable in the eighteenth century when it was carried out only in a very limited way. 1be market failure is ascribed to the Old-Regime division of authority over eminent domain and water rights as well as to the inability of developers to commit to announced prices for irrigation water. The extreme division of authority that prevailed before 1789 gave many individuals and groups the opportunity to hold irrigation projects up and claim part of the profits. The Revolutionary reforms centralized all authority over water rights and eminent domain in the hands of the national government. Furthermore, the state took on the task of enforcing announced prices for developers, thereby solving an important revenue problem. From 1820 to 1860 the irrigated area in Provence nearly doubled. The research on Provence, thus, also points to the dramatic consequences of the decline in transaction costs as a result of the Revolution's reforms.

Chapter Four is a theoretical analysis of litigation and settlement that bears directly on the questions raised in Chapter Two. The model features a developer who has rights to the property of the plaintiff. The object of the game is to set the level of compensation for the property. The plaintiff can either accept a settlement offer made by the developer, or sue. If the plaintiff sues, both parties may search for evidence. The court will make a decision based on the evidence that plaintiff and defendant bring to court. The chapter shows that a sequential equilibrium generically exists. Modeling expenditure decision endogenously allows an examination of the issues of burden of proof in litigation. It is shown that burden of proof has substantial impact on the probability of litigation and the magnitude of the settlement offer. The conclusions of the theoretical research suggest why drainage proposal were so frequently litigated in eighteenth century Normandy.

Chapter Five extends the results of Chapter Two and Three beyond the specific regions of Normandy and Provence. Moreover, the results of Chapter Four are applied to the history of peasant property in Britain and France. The chapter then offers a general conclusion.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Economic history, property rights, French Revolution
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:Social Science
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Hoffman, Philip T.
Thesis Committee:
  • Hoffman, Philip T. (chair)
  • Davis, Lance E.
  • Wilde, Louis L.
  • Border, Kim C.
Defense Date:6 May 1988
Non-Caltech Author Email:jlr (AT)
Funding AgencyGrant Number
John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Alfred P. Sloan FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:03122013-095356494
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:7511
Deposited By: Dan Anguka
Deposited On:12 Mar 2013 17:21
Last Modified:08 Feb 2020 00:41

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