U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Assessing the Early United States by way of the French Peasantry

peasantsAs I have mentioned several times before over posts in this blog (see for example this post), I have found nationalist mythology to be the most enduring and crucial challenge I face as an historian of early America. This is one of the reasons I turned to ‘settler colonialism’ as a conceptual tool, for I found no other framework that helped me wrestle with this mythic predicament. As theorist Lorenzo Veracini noted, the U.S. is, alongside Israel,  one of the “two polities” in which “the very invisibility of settler colonialism is most entrenched.” And, he added, “the more it [settler colonialism] goes without saying, the better it covers its tracks.” (1) Further complicating the situation, history as a discipline both in the U.S. and in Europe historically emerged as one of the cornerstones of this nationalist mythological project. Thus, in pursuit of the historical truth, as best as we can make it at least, as historians we face an at times almost impossible task, one that requires us to transcend the premises at the center of our own discipline.

In high hopes of rattling a bit the scaffolding upon which this deep link between nationalism and history have been constructed I have recently started examining how historians of different polities have sought to challenge their nationalist mythologies. My intuition was that since the myth of exceptionalism is so central to American national mythology, a comparative examination could prove particularly subversive. In what follows I thought to relate some impressions of a book I recently finished reading as part of this agenda, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914 (1976) by Eugen Weber. This is not a review and far from exhaustive, only some observations that I found pertinent to my comparative agenda.

“When did France become one?” asks Weber at the opening of one of his chapters. “Surely we know that. Forty kings worked hard at the task, but it was the Revolution that finished the work in the end,” or so at least the French have it. According to Weber the school books in France since the Third Republic taught French students the following motto: “one people, one country, one government, one nation, one fatherland.” He then quotes this dictum as articulated by Albert Soboul, one of the premier historians of the French Revolution: ‘“The French Revolution completed the nation which became one and indivisible.”’ (2) This, however, asserts Weber, was far from the historical reality. And when writing his study, this realization—to a large degree as a result of his findings—was still just dawning on French historians of Weber’s generation. It is quite telling how the nation in which modern nationalism was born, at least as most history courses of the modern period have it, has been blinded by its own mythology. So much so, that it regarded French nationalism as so obvious that it did not merit a comprehensive inquiry. In some ways this is the inverse reflection of American understanding of its own nationalism: supposedly so different and understated, we don’t really need any rigorous analysis of its scope ( I wrote about this in a previous post).

Weber begins Chapter One of his book with a curious reference to America. Relating a passage from Balzac’s novel Paysans (1844), in which a Parisian comments about the countryside in Burgundy, he quotes the following remark: ‘“You don’t need to go to America to see savages… Here are the Redskins of Fenimore Cooper.’” (3) Indeed, as Weber demonstrates over and over again, as late as the early twentieth century for French elites the peasants of their country were a very distinctive breed of people, essentially different from them. They were “savages,” not “civilized” and certainly not “French.” During the nineteenth century most peasants did not speak French as city folk knew it and many spoke dialects and languages very different from canonic Parisian French, comme il faut. Perhaps more fundamentally, the gap between the localist peasant epistemology to the globally oriented modern epistemology of French elites was immense. According to Weber, peasants in France—though it was for the most part city folk who entertained the idea of a polity called France—had a very limited capacity for “abstraction,” which to him is “the supreme characteristic of the modern world and mind.” (4) Therefore such abstractions as a ‘nation’ or as ‘French’ identity were utterly incomprehensible to the majority of “French” people.

In this regard France was very different from the European society American historians are most familiar with—England or Britain, which the American colonies were an extension of. “[N]owhere in England”, argues Weber, “could one find anything approaching the distance that separated the department of Nord and Seine-Inférieure, say, from Lozère and Landes. Nor, indeed could one have found the kind of tribute that the country paid to the capital, and countryside grudgingly to cities in general.” (5)

I found this difference between France and Britain and even more so between France and the U.S. to be very suggestive. If the country we often regard as the hallmark of nationalism was hardly a nation, what does that say of the U.S., which was much more culturally and ideologically integrated? Perhaps that the early U.S. was a nation to a much greater extent than France. What does it say about nationalism, though? Is nationalism a more robust phenomenon where the project is more crucial and elusive, or is it more robust where the project of nationalism has been more successful? What is clear however, is that since the U.S. was more modern and more easily framed as a nation by its citizens, nationalism looked very different.

What does this tell us about the American state when compared to the French state? The French state transformed itself to a large degree as a response to the needs of French nationalism. Education and road building in particular emerge from Weber’s study as crucial state-sponsored projects for the incorporation of France as a nation. We are often told that the early U.S. was hardly a state when compared to European states. Maybe it did not need to be.

[1] Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (2010), 15.

[2] Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914 (1976), 95.

[3] Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 3.

[4] Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 256.

[5] Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 10.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is great, bringing such a comparative perspective helps us to deflate the exceptionalism that creeps into even serious historical analyses of US political and social culture. And bringing up the Weber is very helpful, though I have big qualms with how he ascribes the French peasants’s lack of a French national identity to their limited capacity for “abstraction,” as non-modern subjects. This interpretation reeks of idealism, with no connection whatsoever to the material and immediate conditions that shape how communities form their identities. Why would the peasants need to identify as French, when they did not even speak the language and when such language was the language of those in power, for example?

    • I totally agree. I think that abstraction is a good word here, but the difference that should be emphasized is *distinct forms* of abstraction. All people are metaphor making beings and as such capable of abstractions. I think western modernity brought with it different forms of abstraction that revolved around different spacial, temporal, and social frameworks.

  2. The comparative perspective is always useful, and here as well. Leaving aside the particular arguments that Weber makes about the relationship between the provinces and Paris, though, I wonder if more analytic precision isn’t needed here around nationalism, state, and *democracy* or *democratic* nationalism. That there was such a thing as French patriotism among aristocrats, say in the aftermath of the defeats of the Seven Years War, is not incompatible with a general absence of “French-ness” from the perspective of Parisians on the part of many provincials well into the 19th century. And here we shouldn’t ignore the conflict over the meaning of democracy and nation between the bonapartists and the republicans at midcentury and after. And, then, maybe what we should be talking about isn’t the birth of the US in the 1780s and the French 1870s, but rather the French Third Republic with the rebirth of the US in the 1860 & 70s?

    All that aside, France has some special status in comparison to the US–and I think it’s interesting to ask why, exactly, this seems to be the case–but how does this problem look when we bring other nations–stereotypically nationalist nations like Germany–into the picture? Maybe the nation has always had an essentially ideological role to play, covering over otherwise obvious material conflicts–postponing them–and we can see this role very clearly in the pre-Civil War USA and also in Germany since 1870?

    • Thanks for this Eric. I think that here is where the difference between patriotism and nationalism is essential. Patriotism is an emotion that could be carried by only a limited amount of people, while nationalism is a project that sets to forge the people into a nation. It is an expression of the general will and is in some ways a democratic phenomenon (democracy understood as a popular tendency rather than a set of values). Nationalism cannot rest until all the nation is regenerated uniting the whole body of the people.
      I agree about Germany by the way, which is the next nationalism I’m planning to explore. Maybe I’ll write a post about it.

  3. The post notes that “education and road building in particular emerge from Weber’s study as crucial state-sponsored projects for the incorporation of France as a nation.”

    In Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (1992), R. Brubaker uses E. Weber here to support an argument about the ‘political’ and ‘assimilationist’ French view of nationhood. In the late 19th cent., reforms of primary education made it “free, compulsory, secular, and intensely nationalistic….” That and the effects of universal conscription into the army made France “for the first time…a unified nation.” (Brubaker, p.15)

    It was an ‘assimilationist’ view of nationhood (or of nationalism) because it aimed to assimilate or incorporate all inhabitants of France, whatever their cultural or linguistic particularities, into the nation. By contrast, Brubaker argues, the dominant (though not exclusive) German understanding of nationhood and citizenship has been less assimilationist and more ‘ethnocultural’.

    • Thanks Louis. Yeah I’m familiar with this distinction and I think it often hides more than it reveals. I think that it is part of French nationalist mythology that they are inclusive and assimilationist, while in fact they are in some ways just as exclusive and ethnicity oriented as the Germans. I think the US is similar to France in that regard–it masquerades as universalist in orientation, but is in fact deeply racial.

      • Could well be right that “it often hides more than it reveals.” Can’t go further into this now, unfortunately, so will leave it there.

  4. Peasants into Frenchmen was one of my all-time favorite books in grad school. If a press published an abridged edition Weber’s insights would reach a wider array of readers and a younger generation of students. His painstaking methodology has a lot to teach scholars as well.

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