EXCERPT: The Cult of the Modern

The following has been excerpted from The Cult of the Modern: Trans-Mediterranean France and the Construction of French Modernity by Gavin Murray-Miller (Nebraska, 2017).


From Chapter 5: Old Ends and New Means

During the month of February 1853, the lawyer and future politician Émile Ollivier visited the salon of Marie de Flavigny, Comtesse d’Agoult, bettervknown to Parisian circles by the pseudonym Daniel Stern. In attendance at Agoult’s soirée were some of the future luminaries of the republican opposition, of which Ollivier was one. Since the coup of 1851, Agoult’s Maison Rose on the upper Champs-Élysées provided a regular meeting place for ostracized political elites. There they were able to discuss politics and social issues without fear of interference from the imperial police. “The general mood of these meetings,” Ollivier noted, “is full of sadness and boredom for present things, fear rather than optimism for the future.”1 This dark period marked, indeed, the nadir of republican fervor. The Republic had been lost in 1852 with the promulgation of the Second Empire, and the republican cause itself was in a state of disarray, with many of its leaders driven into exile or forced underground by Napoleon III. “The word order,” complained the republican Edgar Quinet from Switzerland in 1860, “has been used to morally extirpate all those who have pledged themselves to liberty, and it is in the name of democracy that we democrats who have shown their true colors are now morally assassinated.”2

Despite the sense of despair and stagnation that characterized the republican movement in the early 1850s, frequent meetings and constant dialogue between republican elites would provide the roots of a republican renaissance in the following decade. Writing from exile in 1869, the philosopher Jules Barni claimed that “the republican idea is accepted today, and the thing itself is awaited. Sooner or later it will arrive, and it will be up to us to make it live.”3 Such optimism was nearly unimaginable a decade earlier when republican ideas remained confined to the small salons hosted by socialites such as the Comtesse d’Agoult. The reawakening of the republican spirit was the product of a new generation of thinkers, self-proclaimed “young republicans” (jeunes républicains) who worked to distinguished themselves from the older generation of quarante-huitards that had presided over the failure of the Second Republic. By focusing attention on respect for law, the promotion of progress, and the creation of a modern and democratic political state, young republicans would successfully construct a new political identity that at once stood poised between the extremes of both radical Jacobinism on one hand and Bonapartist authoritarianism on the other.


Since the Revolution, French republicanism had been associated with a democratic and nationalist program opposed to the traditions of royal authority and subservience symbolic of the ancien régime. Its ideological outlook stressed a commitment to a vision of man and society that was, by its very nature, “modern.” Radicals hailed the advent of the First Republic in 1791 as the birth of a new era in human history, transforming the drama of the Revolution into a “mythic present” through the manufacture of new rituals, public celebrations, and theatrical speeches.4 During the years of the July Monarchy, revolutionary aspirations for political and social equality found common cause with disenfranchised workers and socialist militants, tying republicanism to the protests and unrest that regularly beset the government throughout the 1840s.5 The dangers of a socialist movement speaking in the name of “the people” became evident in 1848 when workers and radicals took up arms against the state, resurrecting the “traditions” and “borrowed language” of their revolutionary forbearers, as Marx saw it.6

Young republicans desired to shun the troubling legacy of violence and instability left by the Jacobin Terror and June Days. This goal required outlining a vision of republican society that ceased to equate modernity and revolution. Taking their cue from their Bonapartist rivals, they made broad appeals to the heritage of 1789 while expressing disdain for the revolutionary ideology that consistently marginalized support for the republican cause in the country. Young republicanism drew upon a variety of established discourses, combining aspects of liberalism, philosophy and sociology to accommodate a moderate political agenda. Although speaking in the name of the modern society first imagined by revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century, republican moderates during the 1850s and 1860s firmly identified themselves with a new social vision at odds with the extreme egalitarianism and violent methods adhered to by radicals. As the republican and positivist philosopher Émile Littré claimed, the Terror was “the specter that looms over the republic.”7 It would be men like Littré who contributed to outlining a vision of republican modernity that transcended the revolutionary experience and provided a framework through which a moderate brand of French republicanism could be reimagined and articulated.

The desire for a more practical republicanism cleansed of its revolutionary connotations had much to do with the emergence of a new republican elite that, after 1848, endeavored to make the republican idea palatable to a broader segment of the middling classes—which the republican Léon Gambetta would later deem the “the new social stratum” (nouvelle couche sociale)—coming of age under the Second Empire. The Bonapartists had successfully managed to rally support in the early 1850s with their promise of order and prosperity. By the end of the decade, however, ballooning deficits incurred by state spending and the lack of parliamentary controls over the budget provoked demands for greater government accountability and a more liberal polity overall. “People are now less fearful of the idea of liberty in France than they are of growing public expenses,” Clément Duvernois sardonically noted in 1863, summing up the new political ambience.8 Young republicans keenly sought to exploit this growing discontent. By formulating a political program that blended positivist themes of science and progress with democratic values, they aimed to attract influential men in French political and financial circles to their cause. This objective entailed defining a vision of society that not only discouraged political violence, but comported with the interests and intellectual outlooks of the new class of urban elites distinguishing themselves in French society.9

Salons like those hosted by the Comtesse d’Agoult, recreational societies, Masonic lodges and, eventually, even the chambers of the national legislature offered opportunities for republicans to ingratiate themselves with the prominent political figures and entrepreneurs of the day. Sociability and frequent exchanges between elites over the course of the 1850s and 1860s contributed to a growing sense of trust, familiarity, and cooperation between politicians and men of affairs. These settings equally brought together republicans and progressive liberal thinkers who, increasingly disillusioned with the policies of the imperial government, did not conceal their desires of forming an oppositional front capable of forcing liberal concessions from the Bonapartist regime.10 Much like republicans, liberals recognized the need to redefine their own political identity by the early 1860s if they intended to attract new supporters and win seats in the Corps législatif. Whereas republicans were haunted by the specter of the Terror, liberals remained burdened by the legacy of division and illiberal politics left by Guizot and the Doctrinaires. As republicans and liberals mutually began to reassess and reject the “traditions” and conventional tenets of their respective political cultures and ideologies, both camps revealed a willingness to work with former political rivals and foster cooperation through adherence to common principles and a shared language centered on themes of freedom and modern society.11


  1. Ollivier, Journal, 1:145.
  2. Quinet, Lettres d’exile, 2:21.
  3. Quoted in Hazareesingh, Intellectual Founders of the Republic, 242.
  4. Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class, 26–28.
  5. Harsin, Barricades, 215–18; Gould, Insurgent Identities, 37–38.
  6. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire, 15.
  7. Émile Littré, “La Révolution par M. Edgar Quinet,” La Philosophie positive (1868), 3:384.
  8. Le Temps, 13 October 1863.
  9. Charle, Histoire social de la France, 130–33; Elwitt, The Making of the Third Republic, 7–10; Price, People and Politics in France, 234.
  10. Garrigues, La République, 16–70.
  11. Pilbeam, Republicanism, 271–74.

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