In his 1865 La Révolution, Edgar Quinet addressed the question: Why did the republican experiments of 1792 and 1848 seem to turn to terror, empire, and tyranny? “The French, having been unable to accept the advantages of the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, were eventually led to deny them … and from there, how many false views did they end up embracing.” (158) Caught between political “absolute domination” of this world and the Catholic Church’s “spiritual absolutism” over the next, any republican experiment in Catholic France was doomed to fail in Quinet’s mind.
Quinet looked towards the Netherlands, England, and the United States to see the benefits of Protestantism. These states benefitted from their revolutions (the Golden Age following the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1649, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution), because they had learned from Protestantism the value of liberty of conscience. In France, the people remained in servitude — whether it be to the bishopric, to a Bonaparte, or to a Bourbon.
Such remarks should not be surprising given that Quinet spent the majority of his republican political life deriding Catholic Church. Born from Calvinist stock at the turn of the century in 1803, Quinet attempted to make a name for himself in the world of letters during the Restoration period. He found his voice and message through his early attempts at philosophical poetry and political essays, but eventually he turned to the history of religion. In his early writing, Quinet began to conceive of a republican religion opposed to the domestic conservatism of the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, similar to that of his colleague, friend, and collaborator, Jules Michelet. In 1838, Quinet took up the appointed position as professor of the history of literature at Lyons. Four years later, he moved to the Collège de France, where he began to write a history of the French Revolution. In the early 1840s, the Catholic Church sought to gain greater control over the university system. Quinet and Michelet entered into a polemical debate with the Jesuits and Ultramontanists on this issue. The Collège de France in 1846 dismissed Quinet for his attacks against the Roman Catholic Church and his open espousal of republicanism.
Later, Quinet participated in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy during the Revolution of 1848, only to go into exile in Belgium and Switzerland following Louis Napoleon’s coup and the subsequent establishment of the Second French Empire. So given his historical context, it should not be surprising to find Quinet reflecting on the “failures” of the republican revolutionary tradition. Only later in his life, after the fall of the Empire and the establishment of the French Third Republic, did Quinet return to the country and resume his professorship at the Collège de France.
Quinet’s link between the emancipatory individualism of the Reformation and the outbreak of republican revolution needs to be understood in its transtemporal tradition. At the beginning of the century, the connection between the Reformed faith and the republican revolution were prevalent. In his 1800 travelogue, the German Johann Georg Heinzmann remarked:
The French counter-revolutionaries say that the Protestants are the cause of the Revolution and that they degraded the clergy and disseminated free ideas, which are those of foreigners, not the French … The republican French value Protestants and give them credit for the first victory of light over dark. The true revolutionary … is a friend of the Protestants.(158, 172-3)
Heinzmann’s observation reflected both the persistent confessional divisions in revolutionary France as well as a much larger debate over religious predilections for political expression. Counter-revolutionaries, as Heinzmann noted, imagined a seditious Protestant plot to bring down the Old Regime and replace it with a republic, but this idea was not new to the nineteenth century.
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the French bishop and theologian, along with the controversialists that stoked the fires of Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes at the end of the seventeenth century, too had drawn a direct correlation between the regeneration of the Christian conscience espoused by the Reformed and the “seeds of liberty” that would spring republicanism. In 1689, the Catholic conspiratorial theorist Antoine Varillas published a tract entitled Histoire des revolutions arrivées dans l’Europe en matiere de Religion. The Reformation became a violent revolution hellbent on abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic.
This connection between Calvinism and republicanism was fostered in part by certain Huguenots in exile like Pierre Jurieu who spread arguments for popular sovereignty based on Scripture. Understanding the political ramifications of these statements led fellow refugees like Pierre Bayle to denounce republican formulations as fomentations. Despite the efforts of many Huguenots in the diaspora to thwart republican sentiment, many philosophers of the Enlightenment furthered reified such a religio-political-cultural connection. Inspired by Montesquieu’s L’Ésprit des lois, the Calvinist La Beaumelle summarized this link as: “The Protestant religion is better suited to a republic because its fundamental principles are directly linked to the republican form of government. An enlightened faith is in perfect harmony with the spirit of independence and liberty.”(29)
The Reformed republican mythos was a persistent political narrative in the French imagination before, during, and after the revolutionary tumult, which installed the first French Republic. Yet this genealogy of the republican-Protestant connection emphasizes a common discursive field that pervaded the early modern and modern periods. Catholic monarchists, Protestant anti-monarchists flirting with republicanism, Huguenot skeptics, French natural philosophers, and nineteenth-century avowed republicans all employed such a connection to celebrate or condemn the religious link to the political — all recognizing such a connection as causal and not constructed from deeper socio-economic drivers. More importantly, this connection valorized the individual as best served by republicanism and best suited to foster a Republic. Following the second of two “failed” republican experiments, thinkers like Quinet, dredged up over two centuries of the French social imaginary to rebuke Catholicism as totalitarian in favor of the republican Reformed.
Bryan A. Banks is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Adirondack and co-editor of the blog Age of Revolutions. His current research focuses on Huguenot refugees during the long eighteenth century. You can follow him on Twitter @Bryan_A_Banks.
A Conversation with Benjamin Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University and editor of a new edition of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio by Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia (Pennsylvania State University Press, translated by Alan J. Singerman, 2017)
In 1790, Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia left France to found a colony on the Scioto River, a tributary of the Ohio in the Northwest Territory. Yet by 1792, he had fled, his fortune squandered and his grandiose plans for an aristocratic utopia unrealized. This new edition of his letters, penned in 1790 and 1791, reveals a man purposefully, somewhat pathetically, imagining a pastoral idyll in the Old Northwest as the realities of the Ohio Country increasingly resisted his vision.
His letters, as Benjamin Hoffmann explains, can be read as a bridge between two very
well-known French texts about North America: Crèvecœur’s 1789 Letters from an America Farmer and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840). Together, they trace a literary evolution of the United States in French thought from a clean slate of possibility to an uncivilized, capitalist, and deeply flawed republic.
What follows is part of my conversation with Hoffmann on the themes of Lezay-Marnésia as a tragic figure, fantasy and colonization, and competing imaginaries of the Ohio Valley.
Julia: What made you want to edit and re-publish this volume?
Benjamin: This project started in 2011, as I was undertaking my doctoral dissertation at Yale. Being French in the United States, I wanted to investigate the representations of America in French Literature during the eighteenth century. The problem I immediately encountered was the extreme abundance of materials: dozens of travel narratives were written by French people about North America during the age of the enlightenment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, they are not very artfully written, and they present at best a documentary interest. Consequently, while it was easy to find texts fitting in the category of “French representations of America written between 1700 and 1800”, few writers transformed their experience in the New World into a genuine work of art. The Lettres écrites des rives de l’Ohio struck me because they are an exception to this rule. First, they are the work of a mature writer, a man who was in his late fifties when he published them, after spending most of his adult life reading the work of fellow philosophers and building his own œuvre. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia was a talented polygraph, the author of philosophical essays, poems, short-stories, translations, even works on mineralogy. In 1790, when he traveled to the United States, he had already a long intellectual career behind him. Moreover, his Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio pursue a dialogue with Montesquieu, Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, and Rousseau by making numerous references to their works and asking a question they all spent a great deal of time meditating: what makes a perfect society and how can you create one in the real world rather than just imagining it? This intellectual dialogue plays a major part in the literary and philosophical richness of Lezay-Marnésia’s volume, which is a late reinterpretation of some of the major preoccupations of the French enlightenment. A question immediately comes to mind after reading the story of Lezay-Marnésia’s emigration to the Northwest territory: his journey was a complete failure, a true disaster, he lost most of his fortune, two years of his life, and finally decided to go back to France at the most dangerous moment for an aristocrat, just before the terreur. And yet, despite all his hardships, Lezay-Marnésia keeps describing the Scioto region and western Pennsylvania as a true paradise, a sort of lost Eden he deeply regrets having left.
Julia: Why did French émigrés like Lezay-Marnésia choose the Northwest Territory instead of culturally “French” places in North America, like Spanish Louisiana or British Quebec?
Benjamin: Lezay-Marnésia and his compatriots chose the Northwest Territory based on false assumptions. The most important one was the assumption that it was an empty space. Indeed, we have to realize that the Northwest Territory had just been surveyed, and that very little was known about it in Europe. When Lezay-Marnésia bought lands in this region, he only knew what the Scioto Company told him about it, and most of the information he received turned out to be misleading at best, and at times completely dishonest. For example, the Scioto Company failed to mention the presence of Native American tribes in the region: in the several documents provided by the Scioto Company to its clients, Amerindians are not mentioned a single time, whereas they turned out to be the biggest challenge French settlers were going to meet in their attempt to create a colony. Consequently, the Scioto Company slyly conveyed the idea that the Northwest Territory was a clean slate where its clients would be able to organize themselves the way they wanted to, by adopting the rules and the social organization they desired. That was especially appealing for Lezay-Marnésia and his partners of the Society of the Twenty-Four, who thought an ideal French society could be realized in this isolated space: a society that would retain some of the basic structural elements of the Old Regime (especially, a strong hierarchical divide between social classes), while creating a new kind of social contract, based on philanthropy. That’s why the Scioto region had advantages over other potential spaces of emigration, such as Spanish Louisiana and British Quebec: it was more than just a space to temporarily settle and wait until the end of the Revolution before going back to France; it was seen as a permanent settlement, close enough to trade with the United States, but far away enough to create an independent society on a territory that was not yet an official part of the Union. Moreover, the land was quite affordable for French people, and a lot was for sale: if the least well-off buyers acquired only several acres, the richest ones bought thousands (Lezay-Marnésia acquired no less than twenty thousand acres!). Very astutely, the Scioto Company played with the fears of French people who were witnessing the first events of the Revolution, while offering them at an extremely competitive price a quantity of land none of them would have been able to buy in their homeland.
A map of the Federal Territory from the western boundary of Pennsylvania to the Scioto River, Manasseh Cutler, 1788. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. This 1788 map shows imagined townships and township subdivisions between the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, where the Ohio Company had purchased pre-emption rights. Lezay-Marnésia and his associates in France bought parts of these pre-emption rights under the false impression that they were complete ownership rights.
Julia: Lezay-Marnésia’s vision for his Scioto colony is one in which hardworking settlers are “careful to include Indians among them” (69). His pointed insistence on their inclusion – based on an imagined racial hierarchy and an expectation that Native Americans would adopt European customs – strikes me as bittersweetly naïve, especially given the incredible violence between whites and Native Americans in the Ohio Country in this era. Do you read Lezay-Marnésia’s inclusion of Native Americans as a response to this cultural climate (however impractical), or does it just further betray his disconnection from reality on the ground?
Benjamin: I believe it betrays his disconnection from reality. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia knew very little about America before deciding to emigrate to the Scioto region, and the little he knew was taken from his reading of the Lettres d’un cultivateur américain by Saint-John de Crèvecœur, a work very much influenced by Rousseau, where Native American are depicted as “bons sauvages”, living in perfect harmony with white settlers. I think it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the concepts of “noble savages” and “state of nature” on the writings of eighteenth-century novelists and philosophers such as Crèvecœur, Lezay-Marnésia, but also Brissot, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and so many others. Rousseau used these concepts as thought experiments, as theoretical artifacts, in order to imagine what happened before the creation of complex human societies. But these concepts became so wildly popular that they ceased to be used the way Rousseau intended to employ them: they were taken more and more literally, as if they were describing real people, living at a prelapsarian state that one could still witness outside Europe, something believed by Bougainville and other French explorers. Lezay-Marnésia is a striking example of these disciples of Rousseau who outlived their master and saw the world through the mediation of his works. What fascinates me is the fact he did not try to communicate this troubling experience of alterity, but insisted on representing Native Americans the way he imagined them when he was still in France. Traveling, in a way, was completely useless: in his case, it did not change who he was or what he thought he knew, he even had to forget about it to repeat what he would have said if he had stayed at home. I read this phenomenon as one of the many indications of the therapeutic nature of his literary work: representing things and people as you wish they were, instead of the way you know they are, is a way to come to terms with the almost unbearable disappointments you can experiment. It also proves the outstanding power of literature, that becomes a tool to create an alternative reality corresponding to your wishes and hopes. But when you drop the quill, you have to face reality: that’s why the third of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio is so long, because Lezay-Marnésia cannot bear to stop writing, which would break the spell, so he keeps describing these quite absurd (and at the same time, quite beautiful) scenes of rural banquets, where Native Americans, rich and poor settlers alike, all share a moment of common happiness, enjoying together the beauty of nature and the prosperity of their colony. Of course, this is a pure fantasy, where the point of view of the Amerindians is absolutely not taken into consideration. Lezay-Marnésia just assumes they will be kind and obedient subjects. But I think it’s an illusion he cultivated while he was writing, because it was just too hard for him to accept that he had spent nearly the totality of his once gigantic fortune, risked his life, left at home his wife and two of his children, and spent so much energy, before heading back to France, ruined and bitter. Consequently, this disconnection from reality is in a way self-induced: it’s not madness, or stupidity, it has more to do with finding a way to grieve a world he did not manage to create.
Julia: In addition to a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans had been exterminated, Lezay-Marnésia’s Ohio utopia made me think of the Native American prophets Neolin (Lenape), and later, Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), who also imagined a possible world in the Ohio Country, in which Native Americans would achieve a purified unity through their rejection of European culture and lifeways. Unlike Lezay-Marnésia’s, theirs were distinctively exclusive visions in which settlers and Native Americans could not and would not co-exist. What does it mean to consider Lezay-Marnésia’s utopian Aigle-Lys not just as part of a genre of French visions of the U.S., but as one of several competing imaginaries about the same place? His certainly co-existed in the Ohio Country with a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans have been exterminated, and a prophetic Native American vision in which whites have been expelled and their culture rejected. We might want to explain Lezay-Marnésia’s penchant for fantasy as a result of his being a distant émigré, but what if those much closer to the ground also saw Scioto as an imaginary space?
Benjamin: Not only can we read Lezay-Marnésia’s utopia as part of several competing imaginary appropriations of this land, but also as one of many competing geopolitical projects. Indeed, the vast territory where he wanted to build Aigle-Lys was coveted by several super-powers at the end of the eighteenth century. Great Britain still held several key military positions in the region; Native American tribes fought to keep the control on their ancestral lands, in particular the Miamis and the Shawnees; the American government was planning the westward expansion of the United States; even the French government had views on this place, since the Girondins aimed to create sister-republics in the region, sharing political and commercial interests with France. So, there was a fierce competition, not only of imaginaries as you observed, but also of power and political projects. To comment on this phenomenon, I would venture two possible explanations. The obvious one has to do with a sense of opportunity: the political status of this region was still uncertain, and to ambitious powers, it looked as a place free for the taking. Let’s not forget that France, just a few years later, when it got back Louisiana from Spain thanks to the treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), for a moment imagined to recreate its empire in North America. We know how things turned out – the purchase of Louisiana in 1801 definitely put an end to this dream – but for the contemporaries, there was still the sense that what we know would become part of the United States, could still belong to a European power. But there is another explanation that has to do with the specificity of the landscape, I think. This region, especially Ohio, is very flat: in a way, it is a sort of natural embodiment of the concept of the “clean slate”, a vast space, where anything is possible, where utopias can freely flourish. It has an idyllic aspect in many places, and, precisely, the comparison between the Ohio region and the garden of Eden was repeated by several French writers, including Crèvecœur and Lezay-Marnésia. It is as if the Ohio landscape was a kind of canvas where the boldest imaginations of the human mind could be projected while simultaneously leading to an association with very ancient fantasies, such as the dream of recreating the golden age. For Lezay-Marnésia, there was certainly no limit to what he thought possible: he imagined Aigle-Lys – even if he never articulates the political relation of this growing colony with the American government – as the center of a future empire, an empire he compares to a hive sending its swarms to colonize the almost boundless American space…
Julia: By way of concluding, I’d like to push this final point on the inclusion of Native American visions of the Ohio Valley a bit further. As Gregory Dowd demonstrates so well in A Spirited Resistance, broadly accepted ideas for Native self-determination and resistance—often based in theories of separate creation between Euro-Americans and Native Americans—proliferated throughout the Old Northwest from the 1760s on ( Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1992): 309–350). Spiritual theories fused with political action in the form of, for example, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa’s 1806 invitation to all Indian peoples to join him in settling the town of Greenville, Ohio. This imagined community forms an intriguing counterpoint to Lezay-Marnésia’s own planned town (ibid., 312). In reading Dowd’s writing about Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh’s visions for the Ohio Country, I found that your characterization of it as a place that feels both ancient and full of potential possibility seems to fit very appropriately into what they hoped for and preached of. More generally, I’d also propose that including Native Americans as visionaries may allow a broader and more complex picture of these connections between fantasy, politics, and place to emerge. It frames Native Americans as more than reactive defenders of ancestral territories who didn’t have the power or luxury to transcend pragmatism.
The third competing imaginary for the Old Northwest during this era was, of course, the United States project of imposing the Public Lands Survey System grid. The Ohio Valley was the first place that the U.S. tried out this attempt at regular, linear township squares, and they often appeared on maps long before they appeared on the ground. Thus, the 1788 map of neatly delineated townships squares represented an imagined future, not a present reality.
In an important sense, all three projects—Lezay-Marnésia’s Aigle-Lys, Tenskwatawa’s Greenville, and the PLSS.—these were all imaginative projects involving an element of fantasy, but they also represented very real geo-political designs. Lezay-Marnésia’s might seem the most fantastical because it failed so spectacularly, but even though the United States project of imposing the PLSS succeeded didn’t make it necessarily less imaginary in its nascent stage. For Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, whose visions of the Old Northwest also met with failure, the power of fantasy and the reality of defending and protecting land were intimately intertwined. Can we ever draw clean conceptual lines between geopolitical contests and imaginative visions?
Julia Lewandoski is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation considers the impact of imperial transitions on indigenous landholding in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Quebec, Louisiana, and California.
On a chilly winter day in 1941 Jamil Sasson, a Syrian employee of the French Mandate bureaucracy, sent a letter to the Secrétaire généralduHaut-Commissariat de la République Française en Syrie et au Liban to protest his termination and loss of pension. “Permit me,” Sasson wrote, to underscore the essential French “principle of equality for all.” (1/SL/20/150) This was not merely the protest of a disgruntled former employee: Jamil Sasson was a Syrian Jew who had lost his position in the civil administration of the French Mandate after the application of Vichy’s antisemitic laws to French overseas territories. Based on the records of his professional duties, it seems he was also a spy.
The French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (1920-1946) marked the zenith of the French empire in the Middle East but came with novel legal and political constraints. France held the former Ottoman territories that today comprise Lebanon and Syria under the auspices of a League of Nations Class A Mandate trust territory. France was obliged as the Mandatory power (in theory if not always in practice) to safeguard the rights, property, and religious affairs of the people of the trust territory and to answer for their conduct to aPermanent Mandates Commission that sat in Geneva (62-64).
Jamil Sasson was not a French citizen, but the French state that ruled Syria purged him from his profession, rendered him destitute, and sent police to toss his residence in much the same frightening way that French Jews experienced the onset of Vichy. Sasson’s situation underscores how the bureaucratic state can quickly dehumanize and dispossess; what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” It is also a reminder of the poor practical defense that the idea of equality could offer in the face of bigotry and bureaucratic inertia. Sasson, a Francophone Arab Jew from Damascus, was a trusted interlocutor between the Muslim and Christian religious hierarchies and the French officials in the Contrôle des Wakfs. Personally and professionally, he navigated multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory worlds. His experience offers granular insights for historians of modern Syria and the French empire. It also should interest scholars concerned with citizenship and those interested in the relationship between individuals and state power. Few individuals in the French Mandate could or did cross the borders – geographic, political, sectarian, linguistic – that Sasson did, let alone with ease or credibility.
Sasson’s personnel records show he was nominally employed as a secrétaire interprète in the Contrôle des Wakfs et de l’Immatriculation foncière; the department charged with overseeing the administration and management of pious endowment property, or waqf. My dissertation research strongly suggests that his duties consisted of espionage and administrative surveillance, rather than clerical work. His French superior Philippe Gennardi, Délégué du Haute-Commissariat auprès du Contrôle Générale des Wakfs, saw Sasson as a lynchpin of a surveillance and intelligence gathering apparatus. This apparatus, controlled by Gennardi, functioned separately from the formal security and intelligence services of the French Mandate. Evidence I assembled from the superficially mundane ephemera of bureaucracy – performance reviews in personal files, receipts submitted for reimbursement, back-and-forth correspondence between different Mandate departments over whose budget should pay Sasson’s salary – indicate that Sasson was an integral figure supporting a sophisticated, semi-autonomous surveillance and human intelligence operation run by Gennardi, focused on waqf (Islamic pious endowments) as a surveillance space. This is a story that is essentially absent from the records of the Service de renseignement, the Mandate’s formal security-intelligence service and from scholarship on the Mandate. Gennardi explicitly described that Sasson’s duties defied his prosaic job title to justify Sasson’s salary in budgetary disputes with his superiors: Sasson was in constant communication with all local administrations and managed the French Mandate’s day-to-day relations with the heads of all of the religious sects in the Mandate. This partnership between French official and Syrian Jewish civil servant was a critical, if understudied element of the formal and informal surveillance capacity of the Mandate state. That is, until the the Fall of France, the installation of Maréchal Pétain in Vichy, and Sasson’s sacking.
On July 20th, 1943 Sasson wrote to his longtime superior Gennardi, with whom he appears to have been close. He had yet been unsuccessful in either returning to his position in the administration or receiving a pension, even after the defeat of the Vichy-aligned administration in the Mandate by Free French and British Commonwealth forces in the summer of 1941. Since first protesting his dismissal at the beginning of 1941, “I have had to abandon all hope of justice given the circumstances and my religion.” Thus Sasson was dispatched by the security machinery of the state, of which he had once surreptitiously been a part.
It is challenging to situate a figure like Sasson in much of the historiography of twentieth century Syria. Notwithstanding more recent scholarship, the Anglo-French historiography of modern Syrian history pivots from elite nationalism under French rule to a series of military coups after independence, and ultimately to the coming of the Baʾth Party.Jamil Sasson’s biography does not fit neatly into this standard narrative. He was born in Damascus in the Ottoman province of Syria, the French Mandate state recorded his nationality as Syrian, and he frequently moved back and forth across the borders of the Mandates for Syria and Lebanon and the British Mandate for Palestine where he had family. He spoke French, worked in the Mandate administration, and was Jewish in his religion. He stood out to senior French administrators in the Mandate and local Christian and Muslim religious chiefs as someone reliable. While his nationality was Syrian, he did not enjoy the protections of citizenship.
Sasson worked for the French Mandate state in a historical context in which Jews (as well as Christians and Muslims) had been intermediaries in commerce and diplomacy during the Ottoman Empire (178-79, see also Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-century Palestine, 62-63). Many Jews in the Arab provinces, along with Christians and Muslims, embraced the Ottoman state’s fitful attempts to impose equal citizenship (147). Cast against his sectarian background, Sasson’s personal and professional profile was both complex and quotidian: he played a key role in building the Mandate state, but does not fit the profile of a nationalist hero or a collaborator. Sasson had a government job that was not glamorous on paper, but he performed specialized, sensitive work on issues of religious faith, custodianship and care of pious endowment property, and he carefully built and maintained relationships across sectarian lines, relationships that could be prickly in the best of times. Sasson’s appeal to legal and personal protection in the principle of equality for all speaks to the paradox that defined the interwar period: the vast expansion of rights and international peace-affirming institutions built on the Wilsonian idea of popular sovereignty could not be reconciled with prevailing systems of unequal citizenship, colonialism, and racism. Indeed, formal independence for Syria in 1946 did not resolve this tension, either for national sovereignty or equal citizenship: the postwar United Nations provided better but still unequal international forum and meaningful equal citizenship in independent Syria remained elusive under liberal parliamentary and military regimes alike.
Ideas about “equality for all,” like the institution of responsible French trusteeship of the League of Nations Mandate for Syria seemed to support broad rights, representation, and protection. In practice, they overpromised and underdelivered. The “principle of equality for all” amounted to little practical protection for Sasson by the time he wrote his appeal, yet the idea of equality remained the basis for his case. Equality, as a legal framework, was not sufficiently institutionalized to provide tangible protections. However, equality as an idea persisted.
A number of contemporary tensions reflect the the interwar period that produced the French Mandate in Syria: inadequate yet expanding possibilities of legal personhood and protections for more people; an international system invested with such promise and possibility for peace, but seemingly defined by its inability to prevent conflict; chilling attempts to legally enshrine “extreme vetting” of purported traitors within and enemies without. The discourse of human rights, legal personhood, and citizenship that Sasson invoked in 1941 resonates now with even greater urgency. We would do well to take heed of the experience of a man who found that his world no longer had a place for him.
James Casey is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Princeton University. His dissertation examines the relationship of pious endowment properties to the development of state surveillance capacity in Syria between 1920-1960. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from The University of Texas at Austin and was a Fulbright Fellow in Syria from 2008-9.
2017 has done a lot for the history of ideas. “Post-truth” politics, tyranny, nationalism, and the nature of executive power have pushed us to make sense of the present by appealing to the past. The history of political thought offers solid ground, a way to steady ourselves—not to venerate what has come before, but to use it to clarify or challenge our own ideas.
Debates surrounding citizenship also lend themselves to this approach. They return us to foundational political questions. They force us to ask who is in, who is out, and why.
These questions are not new, nor are they distinctly American. We can learn about them from a seemingly unlikely time and place: from liberal theorists in nineteenth-century France, who were similarly concerned to find solid ground. As Jeremy Jennings notes in his Revolution and the Republic, “the Revolution, and the Republic it produced, gave birth to a prolonged and immensely sophisticated debate about what it meant to be a member of a political community…. It was a debate about the very fundamentals of politics” (25). Democrats used the language of rights, primarily the right to vote. Liberals defended capacité (capacity) as that which preceded political rights. Capacity conferred the title to political participation—it defined who was and who was not a participant in the franchise. There was much at stake in this definition. Only a capable citizenry could overcome revolutionary passion by reason, and safeguard the freedoms and institutions that would ensure a stable nation.
The discourse of capacity drew criticism from liberalism’s nineteenth-century opponents and later scholars. French liberals have been criticized for espousing exclusionary politics that tied citizenship to wealth and social class. Yet this interpretation misrepresents their theory of citizenship. Capacity was actually an elastic, potentially expansive standard for political inclusion. The liberal definition of the citizen was similarly flexible, designed to evolve alongside changing social and economic conditions.
The discourse of capacité originated with François Guizot (1787-1874), whose politics and personality have long been associated with the revolution of 1848. But his historical lectures, delivered from 1820-22 and again in 1828, offer an alternative to his image as unpopular, uncompromising politician. Prior his role in the July Monarchy, he was known for his narrative history of European institutions—praised by theorists in France, Germany, and even by John Stuart Mill in England. His method of “philosophical history” linked politics to society through the study of the past. Political institutions had to fit the given “social state,” a term that encompassed both economic and class structure. “Before becoming a cause,” Guizot wrote, “political institutions are an effect; society produces them before being modified by them” (Essays on theHistory of France, 83). Philosophical history was most valuable for how it informed French politics. From the perspective it provided, Guizot saw that neither aristocratic nor democratic rule was well suited to post-revolutionary French society. He championed the alternative of a representative government with capable rather than universal suffrage.
What did it mean to be capable? Guizot associated capacity with individual rationality, independence, and economic participation. Most importantly, the capable citizen could recognize and promote “the social interest,” a standard apart from the individual and the family. The citizen, a participant in the franchise, was first and foremost a member of the community, capable of recognizing what the public good demanded. Guizot named commercial participation among the signs of capacity, as it revealed one’s engagement—indeed, one’s membership—in society.
Those signs of capacity were also variable. Just as political institutions depended upon historically variable social conditions, so too did the requirements of citizenship change over time. Given capacity’s historical character, it was simply wrong to define the capable electorate as a permanently exclusive class. Capacity should remain ever open to “legal suspicion,” since:
The determination of the conditions of capacity and that of the external characteristics which reveal it, possess, by the very nature of things, no universal or permanent character. And not only is it unnecessary to endeavor to fix them, but the laws should oppose any unchangeable prescription regarding them. (History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, 337)
But Guizot’s own political career was at odds with his theory. If we limit our study to his writings and speeches under the July Monarchy, the image of a dogmatic, inflexible thinker inevitably surfaces. In 1847, he condemned universal suffrage before the Chamber as a destructive force, “whose day would never come” (Speech of 26 March, Histoire Parliamentaire V, 383). Absent from Guizot’s later thought is any mention of the fluidity of capacity or of the potentially more inclusive electorate that might follow.
Guizot’s politics show the path liberalism took on the question of citizenship. Liberals tried to impede the progress of mass politics, and to restrict the franchise to a small, permanent class of the capable. Unsurprisingly, they failed. In an effort to avoid the rule of the multitude, liberals proposed increasingly stringent residency and property requirements for suffrage, which at once disenfranchised and frustrated much of the population. In a democratizing society, liberals vainly stood astride history. But they also failed to live according to their own standards. They tried to preserve as static that which was intended, as Guizot first argued, to be elastic: the concept of capacity and the idea of the citizen. When liberals sacrificed their theoretical foundations to defend political power, they lost the battle for both.
Despite liberalism’s political limits, we should not dismiss the promise of its theory. In his historical discussion of capacity, Guizot separated citizenship from social class. Capacity was not an exclusive, permanent possession for certain persons or classes, but an evolving, potentially progressive standard for inclusion. If capacity was tied to history, extension of the franchise was possible and in some cases, necessary.
Can liberalism’s past help us make sense of the present? The tradition’s complicated history, marked by tension between theory and practice, offers both a rich vision of citizenship and a cautionary tale of political exclusion. Guizotian capacity would preclude exclusions based explicitly on ascriptive characteristics like race, ethnicity, and gender. But as Guizot’s practical politics revealed, “capacity” could also be co-opted to justify these kind of exclusions, or to import fixed standards for citizenship under the guise of so-called progressive appeals to rationality or independence. This is the darker side of any standard for inclusion, and we should be worried about the potential abuses associated with such standards. The political positions of nineteenth century liberals remind us of these darker possibilities, which persist under different forms even in present-day liberal democracies.
Still, capacity has advantages for thinking about liberal citizenship more broadly. Though French liberals most often addressed the right to vote, they also explored what made someone an informal member of the community, with ties to a given place, way of life, and common cause. And they urged that these informal elements of social membership distinguished the individual from the citizen, arguing that the law ought to track social realities rather than resist them—that citizenship was not just suffrage, but a set of practices and relationships that the law ought to recognize. This resonates with our contemporary experience. There are entire groups of people who are undoubtedly members of American communities without being citizens, who participate in society without benefit of the full complement of civil and political rights. Guizot’s thought shows that we need not invoke thick, idealized conceptions of participation to inform liberal democratic practice or its standards for inclusion. For all of its difficulties, the liberal discourse of capacity prompts us to reconsider what it means to be a member of a political community—a question that has not lost any urgency.
Gianna Englert is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. She holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. Her current book manuscript, Industry and Inclusion: Citizenship in the French Liberal Tradition, explores the economic dimensions of citizenship and political membership in nineteenth-century French liberalism.
As insipid slogans of dubious provenance go, “be the change you wish to see in the world” is not so bad. On a bumper sticker or the signature line of a well-meaning colleague’s email, it is presumably meant to inspire. If it registers at all, it manages only to scold. The idea is not a new one, although it is also not ancient. In any case it is unsurprising that moral reform of the self should seem a good place to begin at a moment when many people who have not recently or perhaps ever thought about how to organize themselves politically are trying to figure out how to do so. With that complex of problems in mind, in this post I look back at a particular document, published in France in 1892, which served as a manifesto of sorts for a durable program of moral, and ultimately political, action. The Union for Moral Action, renamed the Union for Truth in 1904 and extant until 1940, engaged in we might now describe as advocacy and agitation, but was above all a venue for clarifying discussion. It was founded in the context of concern with the disintegration of social bonds—the social question—and emerged strengthened in unity and purpose from the great trial by fire that was the Dreyfus Affair. Paul Desjardins, a young literary-critic-turned-reformer, was the animating spirit of the Union, which in the end was a locus of progressive activity: Dreyfusard, solidariste, and concerned about the political status of women.
My object here appeared as an unsigned text in a summer number of the Revue bleue, with the unassuming title “Simple notes for a program of union and action.” Desjardins signed a brief paragraph introducing the manifesto, suggesting that he had solicited it and hoping that some people, at least, would find their own ideas reflected therein. In fact Jules Lagneau, Desjardin’s philosophy teacher, wrote the text and it would later be reproduced under his name in the Union’s Bulletin.
The first person plural rules the “Simples notes,” which are divided into three sections: our spirit, our rule, our action. “The weakening…of the social bond” is both a cognitive and a moral problem, and therefore the spirit of the Union is reason. This is not individuating reason, but rather, “a principle of order, union, and sacrifice…the ability to pass beyond one’s self while affirming a higher law, the idea of which man finds within himself and only the reflection outside himself.” The group is open to all who have “practical faith” but especially to those “without positive faith…who believe that in man, the spirit must command and not serve, because it alone has in itself its end and meaning, and that life has no value except where spirit has marked it.” The Union, then, welcomes all for whom truth and certitude are something one does not arrive at once and for all, but that are sought constantly.
The Union will not simply be one of good will, but rather one in which a certain minimal agreement of principle is constantly shaped and refined through action: “We are the beginning of a society that expects progress only through determination and the rigor of its principle: we tend to realize unanimity, we do not pretend to start from it.” Fanaticism will be avoided by constantly testing in life one’s ideas, which become mere words when they cease to be “the expression in action of interior freedom [l’expression en acte de la liberté intérieure].” If we act in everyday life in a way consistent with this principle, then “it matters little who brings truth to light, who brings salvation… What deserves to be will be.” This is not irenic faith in progress. There is no easy convergence of good intentions here, but rather a Pascalianism, perhaps of the left, which valorizes “discipline” and “renouncement” and wishes to teach “the unavoidable necessity of suffering… to combat false optimism… [and] the faith in salvation through science alone and through material civilization, lying mask of civilization, [a] precarious external arrangement that cannot replace intimate agreement.” Above all, the immoral idea that “the goal of life is to freely enjoy” must be met with the counter-example of the Union itself, which must model, as we might say now, good and social behavior: “For the people is what we make it: its vices are our vices, looked upon, envied, imitated, and it is right if they come back to us in all their weight.” The union must therefore offer “résistance réfléchie” to popular fashion, and rely on moral authority rather than popularity. “We forbid ourselves irony,” and prefer “un gaieté sérieuse.” We will be, the manifesto declares, simply as we are, without false modesty, pedantry, or pride.
Through a “pure and active charity” the Union will “save l’esprit publique.” And this is not a metaphorical charity, but rather one that, by setting aside the desire to save, hopes to create “the material conditions for morality.” The Union understands that impersonal charity corrupts, but individual and direct interpersonal charity “will be the vehicle of love, the spark that wakes the flame… In true charity, the one who receives merges with the one who gives.” True charity allows the spirit to rise above the immediate “sensible” good, and carries the spirit “infinitely higher through the contagion of love.” Acting first of all on those who are closest to us—and this is the most difficult—we make them happy by “unburdening them of their egoism and putting our love in its place. To make one’s self loved by loving with a male love that is absolute will, which is to say sacrifice, and in this way to learn to love—this is everything.” And the circle of love will expand—along the rails laid down by the division of labor: “the chain of necessary service is the link forged by nature between hearts and the divine path of charity through which we enter into to the soul of the people.” Thus we will create “progressively, naturally, an inner society founded on love, peace, and true justice, within an exterior society founded on interest, competition, and legal justice.” Such an operation requires, first of all, self-abnegation from those who wish to bring it about. In the end, the only model available is a monastic and revolutionary one: “an active Union, a militant laïque Order of private and social duty, living kernel of the future society.”
Lagneau’s program is a remarkable one in several ways. It traces a circle from the idea of law as such to the instantiation of law in a quasi-monastic order that would effect change in society by disciplining itself—is this a pre- or an anti-sociological approach to social change? More, in as much as we have to do with a democratic movement here, it is a moral rather than a political one. François Chaubet, historian of the Union, identifies Lagneau’s frankly elitist position as spiritualist republicanism, although here it appears in idealist and not materialist form. Action and even articulation was indeed clarifying: Lagneau’s manifesto drove the future maréchal Lyautey out of the original group, but Lagneau would not follow Jean Jaurès to the workers at Carmaux, and so himself split from the Union when it resolved to support the strike there. Lagneau’s austere, aristocratic, and mystical project for moral action can speak directly to us only in fragments—reduced, that is, to decontextualized quotations like the one with which I began. It is certainly possible to read Lagneau’s manifesto as an example of intense desire—visible in so many places at that moment, and perhaps our own—to be a subject, rather than object of history. Yet I think we can better read it as a usefully wrong answer to questions that are still asked today. There is an unmistakable urgency in his prose, and the moral urgency of truth as an ongoing collective project, grounded in collective action, is surely one we still feel.
In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.
One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case. The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues). And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.
The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896. Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898. Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.
For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence. Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted. Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation. La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations. During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.
Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed. In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages. For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself. For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.
Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole. The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension. The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days. This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.
What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange. It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly. These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame. Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.
Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction. I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment. But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state. Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders. The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription. But the lists pose a conundrum. For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews. In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation. To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.” Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action. Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.
Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds. The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.” What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events. Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work. Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.
Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.