Universal Objects and Universal Rights: Accounting for Revolutionary Mobilization in Late Eighteenth-Century France

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom H (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
James Livesey, University of Sussex
In the summer of 1789 the authority of the French state had collapsed. In response the newly-formed National Assembly devoted itself to identifying and promulgating a statement of the basic principles that should govern the relationship of state, society and the individual. This strategy, of using a theoretical statement as a strategic intervention, proved successful. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen promulgated on August 26th served as the point of integration most vividly illustrated in the Festival of Federation the flowing summer. The success of the strategy has obscured its novelty. How and why did such universalism speak to a population that was still characterized by wide differences of language, culture and even religion?           

The hypothesis that animates this paper is that French society had already integrated universal objects, such as facts, ideas and money into social practice. This paper interrogates the genealogy of universal objects in France in the eighteenth century. In particular it establishes the democratization of debt. Using material from the Languedoc to illustrates how debt and credit became ubiquitous features of local contexts. Money operated as a object that allowed communication across boundaries and opened up the possibility of universal judgment. The Declaration leveraged this kind of social innovation into a credible vision of a renewed basis for political community. The paper concludes with some observations on how these two aspects of universalistic politics continued to interact across the revolutionary decade.

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