French Revolution

The Historical Origins of Human Rights: A Conversation with Samuel Moyn

By guest contributor Pranav Kumar Jain


Professor Samuel Moyn (Yale University)

Since the publication of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Professor Samuel Moyn has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the field of human rights studies and modern intellectual history. I recently had a chance to interview him about his early career and his views on human rights and recent developments in the field of history.

Moyn was educated at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied history and French literature. In St. Louis, he fell under the influence of Gerald Izenberg, who nurtured his interest in modern French intellectual history. After college, he proceeded to Berkeley to pursue his doctorate under the supervision of Martin Jay. However, unexcited at the prospect of becoming a professional historian, he left graduate school after taking his orals and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After a year in law school, he decided that he did want to finish his Ph.D. after all. He switched the subject of his dissertation to a topic that could be done on the basis of materials available in American libraries. Drawing upon an earlier seminar paper, he decided to write about the interwar moral philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. After graduating from Berkeley and Harvard in 2000-01, he joined Columbia University as an assistant professor in history.

Though he had never written about human rights before, he had become interested in the subject in law school and during his work in the White House at the time of the Kosovo bombings. At Columbia, he decided to pursue his interest in human rights further and began to teach a course called “Historical Origins of Human Rights.” The conversations in this class were complemented by those with two newly arrived faculty members, Mark Mazower and Susan Pedersen, both of whom were then working on the international history of the twentieth century. In 2008, Moyn decided that it was finally time to write about human rights.


Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)

In The Last Utopia, Moyn’s aim was to contest the theories about the long-term origins of human rights. His key argument was that it was only in the 1970s that the concept of human rights crystallized as a global language of justice. In arguing thus, he sharply distinguished himself from the historian Lynn Hunt who had suggested that the concept of human rights stretched all the way back to the French Revolution. Before Hunt published her book on human rights, Moyn told me, his class had shared some of her emphasis. Both scholars, for example, were influenced by Thomas Laqueur’s account of the origins of humanitarianism, which focused on the upsurge of sympathy in the eighteenth century. Laqueur’s argument, however, had not even mentioned human rights. Hunt’s genius (or mistake?), Moyn believes, was to make that connection.

Moyn, however, is not the only historian to see the 1970s as a turning point. In his Age of Fracture (2012), intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers has made a similar argument about how the American postwar consensus came under increasing pressure and finally shattered in the 70s. But there are some important differences. As Moyn explained to me, Rodgers’s argument is more about the disappearance of alternatives, whereas his is more concerned with how human rights survived that difficult moment. Furthermore, Rodgers’s focus on the American case makes   his argument unique because, in comparison with transatlantic cases, the American tradition does not have a socialist starting point. Both Moyn and Rodgers, however, have been criticized for failing to take neoliberalism into account. Moyn says that he has tried to address this in his forthcoming book Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Some have come to see Moyn’s book as mostly about President Jimmy Carter’s contributions to the human rights revolution. Moyn himself, however, thinks that the book is ultimately about the French Revolution and its abandonment in modern history for an individualistic ethics of rights, including the Levinasian ethics which he once studied. In Moyn’s view, human rights are a part of this “ethical turn.” While he was working on the book, Moyn’s own thinking underwent a significant revolution. He began to explore the place of decolonization in the story he was trying to tell. Decolonization was not something he had thought about very much before but, as arguably one of the biggest events of the twentieth century, it seemed indispensable to the human rights revolution. In the book, he ended up making the very controversial argument that human rights largely emerged as the response of westerners to decolonization. Since they had now lost the interventionist tool of empire, human rights became a new universalism that would allow them to think about, care about, and perhaps intervene in places they had once ruled directly.

Though widely acclaimed, Moyn’s thesis has been challenged on a number of fronts. For one thing, Moyn himself believes that the argument of the book is problematic because it globalizes a story that it mostly about French intellectuals in the 1970s. Then there are critics such as Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, a German historian at UC Berkeley, who have suggested, in Moyn’s words, that “Sam was right in dismissing all prior history. He just didn’t dismiss the 70s and 80s.” Moyn says that he finds Hoffmann’s arguments compelling and that, if we think of human rights primarily as a political program, the 90s do deserve the lion’s share of attention. After all, Moyn’s own interest in the politics of human rights emerged during the 90s.


Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish-language copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Perhaps one of Moyn’s most controversial arguments is that the field of the history of human rights no longer has anything new to say. Most of the questions about the emergence of the human rights movements and the role of international institutions have already been answered. Given the major debate provoked by his own work, I am skeptical that this is indeed the case. Plus, there are a number of areas which need further research. For instance, we need to better understand the connections between signature events such as the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the story that Moyn tells about the 1970s. But I think Moyn made a compelling point when he suggested to me that we cannot continue to constantly look for the origins of human rights. In doing so, we often run the risk of anachronism and misinterpretation. For instance, some scholars have tried to tie human rights back to early modern natural law. However, as Moyn put it, “what’s lost when you interpret early modern natural law as fundamentally a rights project is that it was actually a duties project.”

Moyn is ambivalent about recent developments in the study and practice of history in general. He thinks that the rise of global and transnational history is a welcome development because, ultimately, there is no reason for methodological nationalism to prevail. However, in his view, this has had a somewhat adverse effect on graduate training. When he went to grad school, he took courses that focused on national historiographical canons and many of the readings were in the original language. With the rise of global history, it is not clear that such courses can be taught anymore. For instance, no teacher could demand that all the students know the same languages. Consequently, Moyn says, “most of what historians were doing for most of modern history is being lost.” This is certainly an interesting point and it begs the question of how graduate programs can train their students to strike a balance between the wide perspectives of global history and the deep immersion of a more national approach.

Otherwise, however, in contrast with many of his fellow scholars, Moyn is surprisingly upbeat about the current state and future of the historical profession. He thinks that we are living in a golden age of historiography with many impressive historians producing outstanding works. There is certainly more scope for history to be more relevant to the public. But historians engaging with the public shouldn’t do so in crass ways, such as suggesting that there is a definitive relevance of history to public policy. History does not have to change radically. It can simply continue to build upon its existing strengths.


Professor Lynn Hunt (UCLA)

In the face of Lynn Hunt’s recent judgment that the field of “history is in crisis and not just one of university budgets,” this is a somewhat puzzling conclusion. However, it is one that I happen to agree with. Those who suggest that historians should engage with policy makers certainly have a point. However, instead of emphasizing the uniqueness of history, their arguments devolve to what historians can do better than economists and political scientists. In the process, they often lose sight of the fact that, more than anything, historians are storytellers. History rightly belongs in the humanities rather than the social sciences. It is only in telling stories that inspire and excite the public’s imagination that historians can regain the respect that many think they have lost in the public eye.

Pranav Kumar Jain is a doctoral student in early modern history at Yale University.

Houses of Glass and Veils of Secrecy: Metaphor in Discourses of Political Publicity

By guest contributor Katlyn Marie Carter

We often use metaphors and analogies to talk about politics. The legislative process, you may have heard, is akin to sausage being made. Such metaphors stand to tell us a lot about how we think about politics and different aspects of government. In the case of sausage being made, one might think back a century to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the meatpacking industry in Chicago as a horrifyingly dirty, disgusting, and degrading affair. In our popular culture, sausage making carries generally negative connotations. When we talk about lawmaking like this, the implication is that it is messy and, though the outcome may sometimes be good, getting to the product is not something that bears scrutiny well. On the flip side, so-called “sunshine laws” are proposed as remedies to corruption or foul play in government. The moniker suggests transparency as a potential cure for the worst aspects of the sausage making process. The use of these particular metaphors sheds light on how we, in early twenty-first century America, think about the ills of the legislative process and how best to remedy them.

Studying the metaphors and analogies people in the past used to talk about politics can similarly enrich our understanding of their thinking and help us identify constitutive relationships between thought and practice. If we want to understand how revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century thought about the legislative process, at the moment when modern representative institutions were first being founded, we would do well to consider the metaphors and analogies they used to describe it. These expressions provide us with ways to deftly discern how thinking about such practices was evolving and how ideas were being shaped through experience with their practical application. Furthermore, paying attention to the way concepts were described metaphorically can reveal anxieties as well as ideals by anchoring ideas more firmly in the cultural context in which they were being applied and developed.

I am by no means the first to suggest paying attention to metaphors in revolutionary politics. More than two decades ago, Lynn Hunt urged analysis of narratives and images of the family applied to politics during the French Revolution—a metaphor which was also ubiquitous in struggles between Britain and the American colonies.  Mary Ashburn Miller has pointed to the application of images and analogies from the natural world in order to argue that French revolutionaries often portrayed political events and violence as beyond human control. Perhaps the most widespread analogy used in political discourse in the late eighteenth century was that of the theater, which scholars of the French Revolution in particular have examined at length. Paul Friedland and Susan Maslan have both pointed to the rampant application of the language of theater to politics and read it as anxiety over the evolving meaning and contested implementation of political representation. Describing politics in terms of theater could carry implications of debauchery, debasement, and downright danger. Examining the connotations of such metaphors and analyzing the way they were applied to politics enriches our understanding of the conceptual development and practical implementation of ideas central to the revolutionary period.

Veils of secrecy and houses of glass, along with references to working “behind the curtain,” “unmasking” traitors, and penetrating “conclaves” permeated both American and French political discourse during the Age of Revolutions. These metaphors were particularly prominent when discussing elected representatives and legislative deliberations among them. They were part of debates—in both France and the United States—over the questions of publicity, or transparency as we would call it today, and secrecy in government. In 1788, Patrick Henry critiqued constitutional provisions allowing for the discretionary use of secrecy in the future federal government, declaring on the floor of the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention: “I appeal to this Convention if it would not be better for America to take off the veil of secrecy. Look at us—hear our transactions” (Convention Debates, June 9, 1788). A year later, in response to a proposal to shut the doors of the Estates General meeting to the public, Third Estate deputy Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf de Volney proclaimed: “I cannot respect he who seeks to hide himself in the shadows; the fullness of day is made to shed light on the truth, and I am proud to think like the philosopher who said that all his actions never had anything secret and that he wished his house was made of glass.”

The question of when secrecy was appropriate versus what should be done in public view was central to the conception and implementation of representative government in the late eighteenth century. Such references are evidence of this fact; but the way in which these concepts were articulated merits further scrutiny. Interrogating the metaphors and analogies employed can help us identify the concerns underlying calls for more publicity and the way in which critiques of secrecy were linked to understandings of how representative government should (and should not) work. Likening the exposure of the legislative process to public view to removing “the veil of secrecy” was not an intellectually or culturally neutral way of describing the procedural decision to deliberate with open doors. Exploring its connotations illuminates the way in which deploying this particular metaphor was both constitutive and reflective of thinking about the purpose of publicity in representative government.


“Les Aristocrates anéantis,” Artist unknown, 1790. Hand-colored etching on paper. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie.

This 1790 depiction of a National Guardsman revealing a formerly masked “demon of aristocracy” provides a visual representation reflective of the language used to talk about secrecy and the value of publicity in revolutionary politics. An eye appears in the right-hand corner of the image. Rays of sunshine emanate from this eye. This image resonates strongly with the iconography used in popular society publications urging vigilance over elected officials as well as potential enemies.

We know, for example, that veils—which were often referred to in both American and French political discourse—were associated on the most basic level with hiding and thus could have implied intentional obfuscation. In the Dictionnaire critique de la langue française of 1762, a voile was defined as a piece of cloth used to hide something, especially the faces of women who were widowed or residents of the so-called “Orient.” Referring to a veil could thus carry feminine connotations as well as a link to the “East,” which was often associated with despotism in the eighteenth century. A common figure of speech, the dictionary definition went on to detail, was that “a man has a veil covering his eyes when prejudices, biases, love, hate, or other passions prevent him from seeing things as they are.” Though curiously not defined in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary of the English language, when Noah Webster released his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, a veil was similarly defined as “a cover; a disguise,” and the verb form was defined as “to cover with a veil; to conceal,” or “to hide.”

Even a cursory look at contemporary dictionary definitions provides some leads when it comes to better understanding the implications of the term’s use in calling for publicity or criticizing the secrecy surrounding legislative deliberations. The metaphorical lifting of a veil—when it came to publicizing political activity or government work—suggests that publicity was conceived of and portrayed as a remedy to combat active and intentional concealment. Such hiding, which could have carried connotations of femininity or despotism, might even have implied the operation of prejudice or the prevention of adequate information among those who were covered by the veil: the representatives who were deliberating. Talking about removing the “veil of secrecy” from a representative legislature may have been a way to posit publicity as constitutive of such a regime, in contrast to a despotic one. More than that, it also suggested specific purposes for publicity in such a system. Representatives were not only to deliberate in public view for the purposes of honesty and to combat implications of conspiracy or corruption, but also to maintain communication with the broader public for the purposes of their own information.

This is just one example; further unpacking the cluster of metaphors and analogies that eighteenth-century actors applied when they were talking about government secrecy and calling for greater publicity could continue to enrich our understanding of how these concepts were being defined and deployed on both sides of the Atlantic. When Volney made reference to working in a house of glass, he gestured to an ancient sage who reportedly declared his wish to live in a house that would allow constant monitoring of his actions. Referring to a house could have conjured publicity, or transparency, in a Rousseau-ian sense, as making one’s soul legible to the outside world for the purposes of guaranteeing authenticity. Further use of the metaphor in the context of defending one’s individual actions as a representative enforces such a connotation. In 1793, deputy Bertrand Barère responded to suspicions of potential past links to the monarchy by citing the same metaphor, stating: “A Roman citizen said: ‘I wish that a house open to all gazes would be constructed for me, so that all my fellow citizens can witness my actions.’ Citizens, I would have wanted to live in such a house during my time as a member of the Constituent Assembly.” A member of a representative assembly, such references suggested, was obliged to live transparently, perhaps without separation of private from public. Furthermore, the reference to ancient Rome was rife with republican signaling. Using the metaphor of a house of glass to describe the way a representative should live, think, and deliberate on behalf of the people illuminates the way in which transparency was constitutive of an ideal representative as republican and completely open to public scrutiny in all his actions.

In discussing publicity using these metaphors and analogies, politicians, polemicists, editors, and theorists implicitly laid out a case for why it was necessary, for what they felt they were combating by imposing it. They also defined secrecy as a particular type of threat, linked to dissembling, eastern despotism, femininity, carnival (in the case of masks), or religious superstition (in the case of conclaves), among many other references. Metaphors matter when trying to explain how people in the past thought about and articulated concepts; they give deeper meaning to what might otherwise be encountered as ideas isolated in the intellectual realm of philosophical tracts or constitutional frameworks. Looking at metaphors and analogies has the potential to firmly anchor political ideas to their social and cultural contexts and, in so doing, to expose the way ideas were interdependently shaped and translated from thought into practice.

Katlyn is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, where she is currently working on a book manuscript about the relationship between state secrecy and representative government during the Age of Revolutions. You can contact her at

Histories We Repeat

by guest contributor Timothy Scott Johnson

 You know, I’ve always been suspicious of analogies. But now I find myself at a great feast of analogies, a Coney Island, a Moscow May Day, a Jubilee Year of analogies, and I’m beginning to wonder if by any chance there isn’t a reason.

            Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (William Weaver, trans.)

Analogies abound in historical writing. Despite their near-ubiquity, however, I find historical analogies drastically under-examined in modern historical analysis. When examined, they usually emerge under the rubric of explaining why one historian’s analogical reasoning proves defective. But examining historical analogies used by our historical subjects can prompt us to ask larger, important questions.

The work done by Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White on historical tropes and metaphor, Reinhart Koselleck on concepts, and Hans Blumenberg on myth and metaphor all importantly contributed to the study of historical representation. None directly address analogies as such, however. At best, they treat analogy as a subset of metaphor, one in which the connecting logics are perhaps more clearly (or crudely) asserted than in mythic or metaphoric representation. Whereas myth and metaphor tend to be impressionistic with underlying logics pushed to the background, process and structure are foregrounded in historical analogy. Processes, narratives, and historicities embed themselves in historical analogies.

Analogies themselves are one of the key ways of thinking difference and similarity. Accordingly, we should not be all that surprised that the likes of Kant, Humboldt, and Droysen foreground the analogy’s role in rational judgment. And insights on analogy litter the first and concluding chapters of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Even thinkers further afield like Fourier and Swedenborg were captivated by analogical reasoning. Without planting flags in any particular philosophical camp, it is not, I think, too controversial to recognize the importance of analogical thought in epistemology and aesthetics in general. To push even further, we could speculate with the linguist George Lakoff that analogies are a universal anthropological fact to be dealt with and not simply an anti-rational demon to be exorcized.

If analogies prove part of our human understanding, what then of historical understanding? For historians, analogies provide something akin to the efforts at modeling the so-called hard sciences developed after the Renaissance, making past reflections a sort of historical laboratory for contemporary and future reflection. Luciano Canfora’s brief study Analogia e storia offers some provisional insights into how historians have thought analogically. Dating as far back as Thucydides’ introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War analogical thinking has been at the historian’s disposal for discerning shared processes and dynamics among different events. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are perhaps an even clearer exemplar. Canfora’s colleague Carlo Ginzburg has also made the case that Aristotle’s discussion of paradigms in the Rhetoric is essential for understanding his view of history. Yet, at the same time, Canfora observes that large-scale similarities brought about by analogy also tend to obfuscate small-scale differences and represent history as tautological and self-referential. Thus, for instance, by definition every revolution risks being interpreted according to the French or Russian Revolutions. The political as well as historical pitfalls of such heuristics are many. Often, Canfora claims, these analogical oversimplifications can be productive in their own right; they can also be political expedients with little concern for historical understanding.

If the particular analogy of a given event to the French Revolution seems familiar—even well-worn, thanks perhaps to the legacy of Theda Skocpol’s comparative revolutions approach—the French Revolution has had other, more surprising, analogical applications. Often, these applications occurred by historical subjects themselves as a way of grounding their own historical situation. Even before French historian Albert Mathiez claimed the Bolsheviks were neo-Jacobins, for instance, Lenin adopted the mantle for himself. When grasped from the subject’s perspective, examining the historical analogies subjects use to describe and understand their own historical moments, the analogy actually has the power of getting beyond the pitfalls of the historian’s macrohistorical determinations. Rather than foreclosing analysis, they can point to analytic surprises.


Following De Gaulle’s return to government in May 1958, on the cover of the French magazine L’Express a Marianne, symbolic of the French Republic, is ready to guillotine herself.

Take, for instance, the French Revolution’s role in deciphering the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) and the fall of the fourth French Republic. Beyond an occasion to examine the important tensions between colonial difference, identity, and hybridity in postwar France and Algeria, the French Revolution analogy can also act as a diagnostic index uniting assumptions about French politics and history with assumptions about Algerian politics and history. That individuals on all sides of the war would refer to the French Revolution to mediate their own experience is both obvious—nationalism 101, so to speak—and illuminating. It highlights the various expectations actors had of the limits and possibilities of their moment. The historical analogy thus serves as a way into the microhistorical world. Taking subjects’ own large-scale assumptions about the unfolding of history as a starting point allows the historian to reconstruct their moment from within.

Let’s look at three specific instances of this analogy during the war. First is testimony from Jean-Claude Paupert, a veteran of the war in Algeria and subsequent member of pro-Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) support networks. Despite declaring years later that he was no “revolutionary hothead,” Paupert was tried and found guilty of providing material aid and support to the FLN in 1960. In his closing trial declaration, Paupert explained his actions were meant to defend French civilization and French values, particularly those tied to the Revolution:

I have not chosen to help the Algerians because of their mistreatment, but because the struggle of the Algerian people is a just struggle, and I have not chosen to aid Algerian militants in spite of their terrorism, but because terrorism is their destiny.… Being French is not a virtue stored in a refrigerator, it is a fidelity one invents. To be French today is to be Algerian … We know well, for both princes and for valets, that fraternity is a terrorist act.

The Revolution’s Jacobin ideals of terror and fraternity were applicable in 1960 since Algeria was going through its own revolutionary moment that obeyed the same dynamics as the French Revolution. In this way, examining statements like this one and the many others like it from the war, we can build an understanding of what a nascent metropolitan third worldist engagement meant.

Next is a completely different sentiment, a message from General Jacques Massu, a rightwing supporter of French Algeria. By the end of the war he would help direct the Secrete Army Organization (OAS), a rightwing terrorist group bent on keeping settler control over Algeria. In May of 1958, however, he proved instrumental in bringing down the Fourth Republic and returning Charles de Gaulle to power. In a letter addressed to “Mon Cher Camarade,” dated 13 May 1958, the day of the Algiers generals’ putsch that would bring down the Republic, Massu wrote, “I must ask the best of yourself in order to combat the enemy and make the great ideas of generous France triumph in Algeria, these ideas that, since 1789, have shaken the world” (Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine, Fonds Daniel Guérin). Pro-colonial military action and the perpetuation of the civilizing mission were behind this instance of analogy to the French Revolution.

Lastly, analogy to the French Revolution emerged as popular among FLN supporters educated either in France or in state-run francophone North African schools. The poet, radio host, and FLN spokesman Jean El-Mouhoub Amrouche, criticized the ethnologist Germaine Tillion for failing to see Algerian nationalists as properly modern political subjects:

It is true that one can hardly recognize these hungry souls demanding the destiny of free men and being inhabited by spiritual needs. ‘Liberty or death’: it was good and true for the great ancestors of 1793 and the barefoot of Year II. Who could imagine the fellagha [rebels] of the Aurès, Oranie, Soummam, or the clandestine actors from the towns or villages of Algeria, have discovered in their desperation the only path towards the light by proclaiming themselves free and sovereign over the land of their forefathers?

Amrouche saw the legitimacy of the Algerian nationalist cause through the prism of the universal French ideals the civilizing mission encouraged him to embrace. Recognizing the FLN’s political legitimacy meant recognizing their affinities with Revolutionary actors.


Jean-Claude Paupert, center, was part of support networks that sheltered Algerians and laundered money for the FLN. (Image from Mediapart)

Simply observing these three different analogies to the French Revolution does not automatically reveal any obvious conclusions, except perhaps about the sheer elasticity of what the French Revolution could mean to different hereditary claimants. And the variety of events within the Revolutionary era of 1789 to 1799 allowed for a large degree of adaptation, highlighting on the one hand citizen military defense or on the other radical Jacobin universalism. But the analogy also works like an index of the type described by Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory, pointing in various directions to further research questions. Why, for instance, would Paupert and Amrouche think that Algerian history was at a moment similar to the end of old regime France? North African history had been denied by historians throughout the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries. Perhaps something had changed in perceptions of North African history (and indeed, much had changed). After all, the analogy is not present in earlier moments of anticolonial violence in North Africa. Further, why would a rightwing military officer feel the need to call upon the principles of 1789 when planning a government coup? What conditions would drive Massu to connect French Republicanism with a rather Bonapartist move (another historical analogy ever present in 1958 France)? Insofar as analogies reveal a subject’s assessments of the logics at work in a given moment, they grant a uniquely valuable point of entry for intellectual historians.


Timothy Scott Johnson recently defended his dissertation on the use of the French Revolution in the French-Algerian War at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the intellectual history of postwar France.  

Threatened by Prejudices: French Revolutionary Textbooks

by guest contributor Hannah Malcolm

Most of these new textbooks were bound and were often tiny enough to fit in a child's pocket. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Most of these new textbooks were bound and were often tiny enough to fit in a child’s pocket. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

During the French Revolution, statesmen faced the task of altering society in order to preserve the new Republic, which entailed developing a politics of virtue and culture. In response to demands for public involvement in government, the revolutionary assemblies published all laws and speeches in newspapers. However, given the novelty of representative politics, the government felt that simply making the new legal system widely available was not enough to enlighten public opinion. Specifically, the revolutionaries feared that prejudices left from the ancien régime would taint public opinion and individual judgment.

This strong distrust of prejudices had notable philosophical roots. In his Encylopédie article on judgment, Louis de Jaucourt began by stating that judgment should not be confused with knowledge that is acquired solely through the senses. Instead, “judgment is […] an operation of the reasonable soul; it is an act of research.” Similarly, in Le dictionaire universel, Antoine Furetière defined judgment as a “power of the soul” which has the capacity to “discern the good from the bad, the true from the false.” However, Furetière differs from Jaucourt by extending his definition to include “opinions of wise people” as well. In this sense, judgment can be the result of a personal trait, rather than defined strictly as a process. Furetière also includes definitions of préjugés, prejudgments or prejudices, as a preoccupation with an opinion that one has conceived; Jaucourt defined them as “false judgments of the soul.” These imprecise conceptions illustrate the uncertain nature of morality and politics at the time. Despite these subjective definitions, the revolutionaries believed that incomplete processes of judgment could be identified through their propensity to mislead the public. Because of this risk, the revolutionaries needed to actively educate the population, and they explicitly spoke of this mission in terms of public safety. People argued that without an educational system, the new generation would either be unable to continue the republic or, at the very least, they would continue to endure crises. The Committee of Public Instruction intended to establish a national school system to enlighten the public on the benefits of the Republic and their new role as citizens.

On the last page of the announcement for the textbook competition, the Committee again emphasized the importance of education in defeating prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

On the last page of the announcement for the textbook competition, the Committee again emphasized the importance of education in defeating prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Therefore, in Year II of the revolutionary calendar, the Committee of Public Instruction announced a contest for new elementary textbooks. Among the many goals listed was encouraging students to abandon ignorance and prejudices. The procès-verbaux of the Committee indicate that many of the textbooks analyzed here were submitted to and reviewed by the Committee. These new textbooks consistently warned against the danger of prejudices. A book of weekly moral lessons declared that “prejudices are the tyrants of the soul.” Prejudices, under this understanding, encouraged one to act and think like a tyrant. This pithy phrase linked disavowal of prejudices to the commonly encouraged hatred of tyrants and suggested that that the latter would compel one to reject all influences of prejudices. In his textbook, François-Xavier Lanthenas argued that “The education which existed under the ancien régime […] was calculated […] to entrench prejudices.” They were clearly seen as corrupting vices which must be eradicated. Revolutionaries believed that this could best be accomplished through a national form of education and instruction, as summed up by Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière’s statement that “instruction is the friend and companion of liberty and the most formidable scourge of despotism,” whereas France’s “enemies count on the ignorance of the people.” By providing access to knowledge, education would give students resources to attempt to discover truth.
Warning about the danger of prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Warning about the danger of prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

By focusing their educational projects around the issue of judgment, the revolutionaries emphasized the centrality of rationality to their conception of society while also revealing their fears about the negative qualities of humanity. As Bourdon de la Crosnière phrased it in his pamphlet, the new education plans must “convert schools from prejudices, from ignorance, and from servitude into schools in which free, virtuous, and enlightened men are formed.” Yet the fear remained that individuals would not want to be educated. Lack of cooperation from the public could cripple the plans for public instruction, as education “depends a lot on the reciprocal will of the people who contribute to giving and receiving it.” Without this reciprocal desire for education, the moral faculties of the students will be destroyed. Revolutionaries saw the continuing prevalence of prejudices as evidence that people might not always be—or even want to be—rational. This voluntary irrationality exhibited itself in the various revolts throughout France, but particularly in the Vendée. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries maintained belief that education held the potential to perfect humanity. In his Manuel des Instituteurs, Pierre-Nicolas Chantreau emphasized that the primary goal of public instruction was to ensure that future generations would have neither the prejudices of the contemporary ones nor the inclination to form new ones. Destroying prejudices through education was seen as a way to guarantee the survival of the new Republic.

Textbooks meant for teachers, or pamphlets for the public, tended to be unbound folded sheets of paper tucked into one another. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Textbooks meant for teachers, or pamphlets for the public, tended to be unbound folded sheets of paper tucked into one another. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

However, the continued delay from the Committee of Public Instruction to establish a school system led to a flurry of pamphlets and letters suggesting new structures or ways to provide education in the interim. Some of these letters suggested that training for law should encourage judgment, but the authors also worried that most students would not continue their education that far; one catechism taught students that all people were judges for the government. The pamphlets identified prejudices as one of the main problems in education—second only to the aforementioned governmental delay. In a pamphlet entitled L’université à l’agonie, Desramser, a university student, emphasized the necessity of making sure teachers “will no longer prefer their personal interests, tyrannical prejudices, or dangerous vices.” Prejudices, it was argued, stopped people from considering other points of view and therefore made it more difficult to reach political compromises. Returning to the conception of judgment as a process, Jaucourt allowed for the possibility of two judging individuals to come to different conclusions. Likewise, Bourdon de la Crosnière argued that if students do not learn to reflect on ideas that they disagree with, then they will be unable to form judgments. It is this reflection on abstract and dissenting ideas that separates judgment from mere reason. However, other articles in the Encylopédie made it clear that tolerance of dissent was founded on the belief that with time and proper education, all rational beings would, through use of judgment, come to the correct consensus.

'The University in Agony' by Desrasmer, student at the University of Paris. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

‘The University in Agony’ by Desrasmer, student at the University of Paris. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

The revolutionaries’ full-frontal assault on prejudices was not condoned by the conservatives of the time, even aside from the implication that religion qualified as a complex of superstitious prejudices. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke alluded to the revolutionary project to remove all prejudices from society and stated that the revolutionaries were rashly constructing “a scheme of society on new principles” and disregarding “the judgment of the human race.” What the revolutionaries saw as prejudices, Burke saw as “common judgment,” and he warned that abandoning it would lead to social chaos, as he saw this common judgment to be the result of previous generations’ wise decisions and necessary to social stability. When the revolution labeled these beliefs as prejudices, they claimed that they were irrational and not even based on experience. Therefore, they were able to frame them as hindrances to true judgment and dangerous to society and the political process.

This hesitation towards accepting a multiplicity of accurate outcomes is likely due to the moral and social qualities of judgment. One textbook author, Nanydre, argued that the public could not blame people for their mistakes if they are only based on prejudices and not from malicious intent. Without access to education, people might be unable to ignore their prejudices. However, as time passes, people would have more evidence needed to abandon their mistaken prejudices. Only after they have ignored opportunities for reform could they be then faulted for failing to learn. Although the Revolution rejected traditional Christianity, it did not intend to abandon morality. Public instruction was not merely the transmission of knowledge but also the instilling of virtue into citizens. The moral guidelines transmitted through education would prepare students to make proper decisions as citizens. Jean Chevret argued that inculcating civic virtues was no different than lessons in honesty. The revolutionaries thus sidestepped the issue of whether morals should be considered prejudices and instead only focused on those prejudices which they deemed dangerous to the new society.

Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière's pamphlet on public instruction. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière’s pamphlet on public instruction. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Despite this public engagement, the threat of prejudices led the Committee on Public Instruction to devote most of its time to educating the public, rather than focusing solely on children. Therefore, instead of instituting a national system of public instruction, it organized festivals, commissioned artworks commemorating revolutionary martyrs, established a new calendar, and otherwise reorganized society to make it inhospitable to prejudices. This change of direction was crucial as few schools outside of Paris accepted the new textbooks. The Committee’s incomplete work is unsurprising, given not only the short life of the First Republic, but also virtually every education system’s inability to completely eradicate prejudices from society.

Hannah Malcolm is an undergraduate at Appalachian State University. She is writing an honors thesis on public instruction during the French Revolution.