Making France Modern: Democracy, Empire And The Construction of French Modernity, 1848-1870

Murray-Miller, Gavin, Department of History, University of Virginia
Geraci, Robert, Department of History, University of Virginia

In recent decades, French historical scholarship has begun to re-examine the Second Empire, revising a period once interpreted in terms of failure and national tragedy to reveal a moment in which the roots of France's "modern" republican polity emerged. Yet in spite of this re-evaluation, scholars have continued to maintain a traditional framework centered on the antagonism between the Bonapartist government and a revived republican opposition. This dissertation intends to shift the focus away from the struggle between the Bonapartists and republicans by emphasizing the shared political discourse and language both factions employed in dealing with common problems concerning anxieties over mass democracy and the processes of nation and empire building taking place in the post-revolutionary period. In particular, this study examines how the idea of "modernity" and "modern society" played a central role in redefining French political culture and policy-making during the mid-nineteenth century. If the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) offers a context in which to understand the roots of French republican modernity, it equally poses new questions regarding the part colonialism played in the construction and articulation of French social and national identities. Incorporating both national and colonial trajectories, this study reframes midnineteenth-century French political life and thought as a response to the advent of mass democracy and the colonization of North Africa. I contend that concerns over democracy and colonial integration gave rise to a novel political language and culture that produced iv a new set of core political issues increasingly associated with the idea of modernity and modern society in France. This premise critically engages prevailing understandings of "political modernity," arguing that during the years of the Second Empire a new style of discourse and representation emerged that used conceptions of modernity to legitimate and rationalize the power of elites in an age characterized by democratic and imperial ambitions. As French elites endeavored to rebuild a society destabilized by revolutionary violence, democratization and imperial expansion, cultivating a nominally "modern" identity justified claims to leadership and power over subaltern groups commonly depicted as "primitive" and beyond the pale of modern society. In viewing modernity as a product of political culture rather than a process of social and political transformation, I demonstrate how conceptions of time and society played a key role in reshaping power relations and social identities in nineteenth-century France.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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