Philanthropy and the State in France

“The Capable Man”—The Philanthropic Man—in 19th Century France

Editors’ Note: Continuing HistPhil’s forum on Philanthropy and the State in France, Nagisa Mitsushima discusses philanthropy and electoral democracy during the first half of the 19th century in France. In dialogue with French studies on philanthropy, Mitsushima’s historical research “proposes to transform the view that we usually take on philanthropy, by shifting our analysis of its role in society away from the history of social policies, and towards that of representative democracy.”

My own contribution to the Geneses collection of essays on philanthropy and the French State (which this HistPhil forum is highlighting) focuses on philanthropy and electoral democracy during the first half of the 19th century in France. I suggest that philanthropy became a contentious practice used by a liberal elite opposed to electoral democracy. For these learned aristocrats who believed science – rather than election – should be at the core of political modernity, philanthropy represented the future of politics, that is, a domain reserved for “capable men”. At the dawn of the electoral era in France, philanthropy thus served as a critical means for the liberal aristocracy to push back against electoral democracy in favor of a political system based on competence. Even if they failed in doing so, philanthropists did bring rationality and competence claims into politics. This research hence underscores the political dimensions of philanthropy in France.

French studies on philanthropy are dominated by two critical paradigms. The first, which claims Michel Foucault‘s legacy, considers philanthropy as an instrument of social control aimed at disciplining the poor (Procacci 1993). As persistent poverty became a key concern to intellectual and social elites in the early 19th century, philanthropy was the solution proposed by the ruling class to prevent state intervention; it would address pauperism solely by private foresight and charity (Castel 1995, Donzelot 1977). Philanthropy so understood would be a first stage in the history of French social policies, characterized by the role of dignitaries and the private sector in the 19th century, before the 20th century Welfare State organized a public social security system (Bec 1994, Ewald 1994, Hatzfeld 1971).

A second intellectual tradition sees philanthropy as a tool of social legitimation. Indebted to the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, this approach highlights the place of philanthropy in intra-elite struggles, the fabric of social hegemony and the perpetuation of the capitalist order (David 2006, Guilhot 2006). At first blush, the philanthropy of the first half of the 19th century could lend itself to such a reading. After all, economic elites such as Delessert, Mallet, Hottinguer, Goüin, and Rothschild had been among the first to find value in philanthropic practice. However, a more in-depth study of the actors (including not only bankers but also noble families) and their discourse suggests the strictly political—and not simply or even primarily, economic— stakes that have motivated philanthropic investments. Indeed, for its advocates, philanthropy was primarily a counter-fire opposed to what they perceived as an “electoral problem.” As the representative system established in 1815 threatened to undermine the long domination of the court aristocracy, this Parisian nobility saw in philanthropy a means to recreate a scope for political action outside Parliament, and restore the political value of their own resources –their high level of education, their scientific knowledge, their inclusion in the network of social institutions. In that respect, philanthropy carried an alternative proposal of political modernity, where competence and skills (defined by these very elites) rather than elections shaped political power. My research thus proposes to transform the view that we usually take on philanthropy, by shifting our analysis of its role in society away from the history of social policies, and towards that of representative democracy.

To offer some context to representative democracy in France, it is important to underscore the introduction in 1815 of the electoral suffrage. In 1815, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte briefly had returned to power, though the monarchy was ultimately restored. Aspiring to the reconciliation of the “two Frances” (the Revolution and the Old Regime), Louis XVIII established a parliamentary monarchy based on census elections. By the ambitions and the exclusions it elicited, the election emerged as a new indicator of elite hierarchies. In many ways, it disrupted long-standing means of shaping political networks in France. Until then, before the census elections were introduced, political power depended on the family rank in the nobility hierarchy, the personal influence at the court, the favor and arbitrage of the king. For the nobility of the Old Regime returning from emigration, as for the nobility of the Empire, the electoral system upset the political practices inherited from the court society in which they socialized. Furthermore, Louis XVIII’s new census elections directly threatened the assumed political dominance of the Parisian high nobility, filled by the Enlightenment mentality. Census elections enabled a provincial nobility to enter politics, and thus compelled the learned and liberal aristocracy to compete with a landed nobility, deemed to be rough, uneducated and counterrevolutionary. It is in this particular context of political uncertainty, where the sources of authority were questioned and their positions potentially threatened, that a segment of the French elite undertook to renovate the forms of its political participation around philanthropy.

The first half of the nineteenth century is marked by a strong interpenetration between politics and philanthropy, large philanthropic societies being led by men who were prominent political actors. We focus here on the inaugural moment when these two practices —philanthropic and political— were first intertwined. I describe the place of philanthropy in the organization of the electoral system and the subsequent recomposition of elite political practices.

I suggest that the Royal Society of Prisons (1819) and the Society of Christian Morals (1821) are privileged sites to observe and understand the redeployment of political strategies around philanthropy at the time. Focusing on these two organizations, my research shows that philanthropy was one of the means by which the liberal aristocracy as well as the king appropriated the new electoral situation, starting from very different conceptions of political modernity.

Philanthropy was first fostered by the king who saw it as an institutional adjustment lever that allowed him to acclimatize electoral logics to the traditional political game, and to support his aristocracy in the accepting “representative government.” In doing so, the king offered a position of authority to a fringe of the high nobility in Paris who could invest philanthropy with opposite goals. As early as the 1820s, philanthropy became a stronghold of the liberal opposition, where learned aristocrats denounced the incompetence of elected officials and challenged the very principle of voting. Returning to its moment of genesis, I show that philanthropy in France was at the heart of a representative renewal. Backed by elites wishing to reestablish, on terms of merit and competence, their political domination, philanthropy was at the center of the struggles that built up around the electoral monopoly, and at the forefront of the resistance that had been opposed to it.

My historical investigation begins in the salons of the Ministry of the Interior, where meetings of the Royal Society of Prisons (RSP) were held. Founded in 1819 by the king who appointed 324 members to the Society, the RSP was considered the most prestigious philanthropic society of its time, but also a place of partisan intrigues. Contemporaries described it, in fact, as a centerpiece of the political edifice built by Louis XVIII to acclimate the “representative government” he had just established. The archives of the RSP and the personal correspondence of Louis XVIII show how the king used this philanthropic society to calm the agitation of his aristocracies, worried by what the election could do to their political positions. The king first appointed to the RSP the greatest dignitaries of the Old Régime and the Empire. This is to say that, by the time that he committed his regime to the path of parliamentarianism, he saw philanthropic organizations as a means of reaffirming the political authority of the name and privilege of noble families. This would indicate to (some) great servants of the land that their political existence would not depend on the hazards of electoral life. Other members would enter the RSP after an electoral defeat. At a time when defeat was perceived to be a political death (against the ordinary logic of the representative system), the king desired to make philanthropy a kind of “civic waiting room” where unhappy candidates could wait, with dignity, for the next election. In a society where coups d’état and assassinations were still ordinary ways of dealing with political defeat, philanthropy would play its part in pacifying political passions associated with the electoral civilization and in teaching the electoral logic to the elite: the majority principle, partisan alternation, and civic patience.

The king clearly saw philanthropy as a lever for institutional adjustment to the electoral system, particularly at a time when social elites were praising charitable practices. This first use of philanthropy bears witness to Louis XVIII’s conception of politics. For the king as for the majority of his contemporaries, politics was not a means to solve public problems but an honorary position to attest social status : it was understood in terms of being “invited to sit” (by a royal appointment, or an election by one’s peers) in an institution, without this placement involving any actual work. It was precisely this conception of politics that philanthropy advocates criticized : to govern, they said, was not to be content with placing men or “keeping the balance of parties.” To govern was to act; it was to methodically fight against social problems.

Within the RSP, the most steadfast advocates of philanthropy belonged to a specific environment. All liberals and mainly Protestants, they were heirs of the great Parisian aristocracy (Duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Marquis of La Fayette, Baron of Staël, for example). Unlike the Catholic charities offering little prospect of emancipation to the people, philanthropists sought to promote a new mode of social intervention, secularized, institutional and scientific. In support of this rationalizing project, such liberal-elite-turned-philanthropists founded the Society for Elementary Education (1815), the Society of Savings Banks (1818) and especially the Society of Christian Morals (1821).

These philanthropists were the “doers” of the RSP. They accumulated positions in its governing bodies and commissions of inquiry. By their work and studies, these men would have acquired a real competence. At least that is what the RSP archivist, coming from within these philanthropic ranks, wanted to convince us (as well as his contemporaries) when he compiled in voluminous collections the activity of the RSP. In presenting such an image of the RSP’s work, the stakes were high because it is in the name of their competence that these philanthropists demanded and obtained free rein on prison policy. The archives show that they largely used the administrative authority conferred on them by the statutes, to the point of placing the government in a quasi-subordinate relationship, dictating to the minister his choices in prison staffing, budget, new buildings, and rules of procedure. The success of the RSP is essential to understanding the centrality of competence claims in philanthropists’ discourse, since they experienced at the RSP for the first time the power provided by their competence in a politico-administrative system that was still deprived of internal expertise.

When the cabinet turned reactionary after the failed attempt on Louis XVIII in 1822, and the liberals came into frontal opposition to the conservative government, the steadfast philanthropists within the RSP deserted this organization in favor of the new Society of Christian Morals. A rallying point of the liberal opposition, this philanthropic society has became the place to develop a subversive discourse against the electoral system. Over the span of numerous gatherings, these key philanthropic actors vocalized their opposition to contemporary political life in France by contrasting “the party man” who engaged in all the mediocrities of the electoral struggle and “the capable man” who devoted himself to the public utility in philanthropic societies. These members of the Society of Christian Morals described political institutions vitiated by the electoral game—an arena of ego struggles and race for positions. By contrast, they discussed philanthropy as the place of true politics, where men such as themselves conducted useful and rational work on behalf of the public.

This praise for the spirit of association against representative government was, of course, the speech of political opponents. It was a way for liberals excluded from the state since 1822 and having found refuge in philanthropy to regain power by establishing philanthropy as a new form of political excellence. However, it would be reductive to see their pro-philanthropic posture as the result of their political exclusion alone. Rather, it was a means for these high-ranking nobles—who were part of the political establishment—to rationalize their disdain for electoral democracy. It gave credence, that is, to their own assumptions about the value of patrimonial and elitist dominance in politics.

Ultimately, after the 1830 Revolution that brought the liberal monarchists to power, these men became members of the government or top civil servants. With a shared vision of the problems of their time (poverty, education, prison, slavery) and the right way to solve them (by the rational examination of the facts), these French political elites would experiment with a new conception of politics, not as a statutory investment, but as an effective reform of society. In doing so, they brought their image of “the capable man”—the philanthropic man—into the realm of politics.

-Nagisa Mitsushima

Nagisa Mitsushima is a lecturer-researcher in political science at the University of Lille. Her research focuses on the relationship between philanthropy and politics from a socio-historical perspective. Her thesis explored how philanthropy had contributed to political protest and resistance to electoral democracy in the early 19th century. She is currently conducting a project with the OCIRP Foundation on the role of contemporary philanthropy in promoting orphan causes. 

Castel, Robert. 1995. Les Métamorphoses de la question sociale, Paris, Gallimard.

David Thomas, Nicolas Guilhot, Malik Mazbouri et Janick Schaufelbuehl (éds.). 2006. Traverse. Revue d’histoire, Philanthropie et pouvoir, XIXe et XXe siècle, no 6.

Donzelot, Jacques. 1977. La Police des familles, Paris, éd. de Minuit.

Bec, Colette, Catherine Duprat, Jean-Noël Luc et Jacques-Guy Petit. 1994. Philanthropies et politiques sociales en Europe, XVIIIe-XXe siècle, Paris, Anthropos.

Ewald, François. 1994. L’État-Providence, Paris, Grasset.

Guilhot, Nicolas. 2006. Financiers, philanthropes, Paris, Raisons d’agir.

Hatzfeld, Henri. 1971. Du paupérisme à la sécurité sociale, 1850-1940, Paris, A. Colin.

Procacci, Giovanna. 1993. Gouverner la misère, 1789-1848, Paris, Seuil.


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