Philanthropy and the State in France

Philanthropy without a State? On the Importance of Thinking Locally or what 19th century French History Can Teach Us

Editors’ Note: Continuing HistPhil‘s forum on Philanthropy and the State in France, Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée illustrates “how the French State—throughout much of the nineteenth century—relied on public and private treatment of poverty.”  

« Nous voyons les femmes du monde, même les plus élégantes et les plus frivoles, travailler sans cesse pour les pauvres ; elles brodent, elles dessinent, elles peignent, elles écrivent, elles vendent, elles chantent, elles jouent la comédie, elles dansent même pour eux » (Paris, 1842).

“We see the women of the world, even the most elegant and the most frivolous, working incessantly for the poor; they embroider, they draw, they paint, they write, they sell, they sing, they play the comedy, they even dance for them” (Paris, 1842). These women also visited the poor, which was common practice among such women at the time as depicted by Baron de Gérando in his best-seller the Visitor of the poor (first published in 1820).

How can the social importance of these private commitments be understood when the French Revolution undertook to nationalize and secularize charity? They lead us to notice, in fact, that the relations between public and private treatment of poverty were less opposed during the 19th century than embedded and complementary. The French State’s approach to poverty assistance regulation, which dominated from the 1820s until its reconsideration by the Republicans in the 1880s, could thus be defined: a minimal social State, encouraging a local management of relief, which relied on the collaboration of private actors (individuals but especially associative actors) and city actors.

The geographic focus of our research, Paris, offers a privileged observation laboratory for analyzing the French State’s approach to poverty during the greater part of the nineteenth century. The capital was experiencing strong demographic growth, going from 550,000 inhabitants in 1800 to 1,800,000 in 1872. The rate of poverty was maintained at a high level: one needy for eleven inhabitants in 1830, one for seventeen in 1870. From the vantage point of Paris, it becomes clear how the French State—throughout much of the nineteenth century—relied on public and private treatment of poverty.

  • New organizations of charitable men

Founded in 1833, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul could be defined as an associative, voluntary, masculine, denominational, lay philanthropic organization. Less than ten years later, the Catholic charity had 1,000 members in Paris and 1,500 throughout the rest of the country. Every week, each of these chapters would visit an average of two families, and offer food vouchers for bread or meat (corresponding to the overwhelming share of food in people’s budgets).

This voucher exchange not only helped relieve the families’ immediate food needs, but also opened the way to a moral relationship between the Society members and these families, making it possible for the former to take an interest in the families’ health and livelihood and the children’s schooling.

In the nineteenth century, the Society was present in all Parisian neighborhoods, though it was most established in the affluent neighborhoods of the Left Bank and west of the capital, whereas poverty was greater north and east of the city. The Society’s growth was not unique; various charitable societies in Paris grew in areas of the city with the least needy. To this point, Paris’s 7th arrondissement (the city’s richest neighborhood) had sixty charitable societies and a poverty rate of 5%. By comparison, the city’s 5th arrondissement (then the poorest, with a poverty rate three times higher) maintained the same number of societies. Philanthropy is based on a sociology of the entre-soi  (on a volunteer base within the bourgeoisie or nobility).  That said, it is also based on family networks that allow one to speak not only of charitable men and women but also of charitable families. This distortion between the sociology of donors and the geography of poverty made it difficult for the societies to be sincere voices for the communities they served. After all, even though these philanthropists and charitable recipients all lived in Paris, they were not part of the same communities.

  • The role of religious congregations of women

By comparison, another set of philanthropic actors in nineteenth century Paris more closely approximated the role of community representatives. Catholic female communities did so by living within the communities they served. In the nineteenth century, these charitable communities developed considerably. Four hundred were created between 1800 and 1880. They could be defined as semi-public, professional, feminine and religious actors of philanthropy. Centralized and hierarchical, these societies of Catholic women made it possible to articulate two scales of charity: the local proximity with poor people and the national—and even international—mobility of a disciplined staff of nuns.

The best known among these Catholic communities were the Daughters of Charity, or Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, founded in Paris in the seventeenth century. Abolished in 1793, they were officially reestablished in 1802, and by 1880, already had 9,000 members. They were nurses in hospitals, schoolteachers and visitors to the poor in charitable offices. They also established nurseries for workers’ children, orphanages and professional workshops for girls, and hospices for the elderly. Some were even pharmacists. Working closely with the municipalities that contracted with them, these women served 14 hospitals in Paris (Val-de-Grace, Invalides, Incurables, Necker, etc.) and 32 parishes out of 43 in the 1850s. In the parishes, they were surrounded by salaried staff (doctors and midwives), but above all by volunteers (commissioners and ladies of charity, for example) who assisted the Daughters of Charity in their home visits. The sisters, who still owned their inheritances, frequently invested their personal funds toward the group’s charitable efforts. Their popularity also allowed them to attract many private donations, especially from other women in the communities. In many ways, the Daughters of Charity represented a model of local charitable aid, financed both by public and private funds; representing significant savings for public finances.

  • The honorary management of philanthropy by the State

Rooted in nineteenth century France, the Daughters of Charity and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul are but two examples of how the French State long has delegated financial burdens of poverty assistance to municipalities, religious congregations, charities and donors. In return, the State traditionally has compensated these groups with symbolic rewards. For example, the prestigious Legion of Honor (almost exclusively male) was granted to four Catholic nuns in 1852, including the famous sister Rosalie Rendu, of the Mouffetard district (Paris). In bestowing the honor, the Minister of the Interior underscored the State’s reasons. As he explained, Rendu had shared the “constant concern” of the Prince-President for the “working class.” The State staged the collaboration of private actors in public beneficence by making them essential components for its majesty. A technique of power, the awarding of medals allowed the State to celebrate and further encourage private actors’ work on behalf of the poor, and in the process, to facilitate for itself more efficient and less costly means of addressing poverty assistance.

  • The gift: a response to the dissolution of the social body?

During the nineteenth century, French citizens confronted anxieties stemming from the dissolution of the social body after the French Revolution. They thus wondered how the French people could live together again and what their social cohesion would be based upon. For some of them, the answer lay in nurturing charitable relationships.

For the long nineteenth century (1789-1914), as I show, such philanthropic relationships challenged a modernity that was economic (dominated by market relations), political (with the growing assertion of the State), and social (by making the nuclear family the heart of a bourgeois morality). This could be called a form of “anti-modernity,” a policy without the State but not without public power.

-Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée

Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée is an associate professor of modern history at the Sorbonne, in Paris, member of the Center for 19th-Century History. His research interests include Charity, Philanthropy and Poor Relief; Women, Gender and CatholicismFrench and Global History. Recently, he has edited a special issue for Les Etudes sociales, “L’intelligence de la pauvreté,” and also wrote Le temps des cornettes. Histoire des Filles de la Charité, 19e-20e s. (Fayard, 2018).


Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée, La Société de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul au xixe siècle. Un fleuron du catholicisme social, 2008.

Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée, Histoire des Filles de la Charité : vol. 1, La rue pour cloître (xviie– xviie s.) ; vol. 2, Le temps des cornettes (xixe-xxe s.), 2011-18.

Olivier Ihl, « Gouverner par les honneurs », Genèses, 2, 2004, p. 4-26.

Pierre Rosanvallon, Le modèle politique français, 2004.

Antoine Compagnon, Les antimodernes, 2005.


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