Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Guizot, François

  • Europe (general)FrenchHistory-writing
  • Social category:
    Monarchs, statesmen, politiciansScholars, scientists, intellectuals
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  • Title:
    Guizot, François
  • Title2:
    Guizot, François
  • Text:

    A prominent politician and one of the main innovators of Romantic historical research, François Pierre Guillaume Guizot (Nîmes 1787 – Saint-Ouen-le-Pin 1874) embodies how history was politicized in France during the Restoration (1815-30) and the July Monarchy (1830-48), and was instrumentalized to propagate national unity and national consciousness. Guizot’s law on public instruction (1833) contributed to developing and unifying the French educational system.

    Born into a Protestant family in southern France, he was marked by the imprisonment and the execution of his father, a Girondist advocate, sentenced by the local revolutionary tribunal in 1794. The six years he spent in Geneva, where his mother moved in 1799 with him and his brother, acquainted him with foreign languages and English and German literature. (His philosophy teacher, Pierre Prévost, an adept of Kant and of the French Idéologues, was the translator of Adam Smith and, later, of Malthus.) In 1805, Guizot commenced his law studies in Paris, where he made the acquaintance of, among others, Charles de Villers, Claude Fauriel, and the perpetual secretary of the Académie française, Jean Baptiste Antoine Suard, to whom Guizot owed a deepening cosmopolitanism and publication opportunities. He wrote articles on education for and with Pauline de Meulan, who became his wife in 1812, and translated with her help Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

    By the end of the Napoleonic regime, Guizot had become history professor at the Sorbonne and a prominent figure in the liberal opposition. Under the first Restoration, he held a government post as secretary-general of the Ministry of the Interior. During the second Restoration, he held posts in the Ministry of Justice and the Conseil d’Etat, but was dismissed in the increasingly reactionary climate after 1820; in 1822 his lectures at the university were banned. A prominent member of the doctrinaires, who wished to place politics on a non-opportunist, purposeful footing, Guizot sought to identify modes of restoring social cohesion, national unity, and government stability while consolidating the achievements of the Revolution. The necessity to understand the Revolution in the broader, long-term evolution of French society and European civilization gave a practical purpose to historical Enquiry: understanding the necessities of the present time, formulating the right principles for government, and taking the proper political decisions. Both as a historian and as a politican, Guizot wished to rediscover the unity of French history. His assessment of  the Revolution as the inevitable result of a long-term evolution with drastic, irrevocable consequences led him to endorse a constitutional monarchy as a midway between radical republicans and reactionaries. The representative system would prevent despotism, while the monarchical regime and the unequal division of political rights (as a reflection of the unevenly distributed abilities of the individuals) would ensure the stability of the state and the triumph of reason, in a compromise between the old and the new France.

    Guizot exposed his reflections on French and European history in his lectures at the Sorbonne, published between 1829 and 1832 (Cours d’histoire moderne. Histoire générale de la civilisation en Europe depuis la chute de l’Empire romain jusqu’à la Révolution française, and Histoire générale de la civilisation en France depuis la chute de l’Empire romain jusqu’en 1789), and in several books, including Du gouvernement représentatif et de l’état actuel de la France (1816), Des moyens de gouvernement et d’opposition dans l’état actuel de la France (1821), Essais sur l’histoire de France (1823), Histoire de la Révolution d’Angleterre depuis l’avènement de Charles Ie, jusqu’à la restauration de Charles II, 1ère partie (1826-27), Histoire des origines du gouvernement représentatif en Europe (1851), and Histoire de la république d’Angleterre et de Cromwell. 2ème partie de l’Histoire de la Révolution d’Angleterre (1854).

    Guizot was involved in the emergence of a new historical school also including Augustin Thierry, François-Auguste Mignet, Jules Michelet, and Edgar Quinet. Guizot’s own conception of history was much indebted to Friedrich Carl von Savigny, whom he both praised and criticized. Guizot thought that the historian should combine three methods: the “anatomy” of history, that is to say the elucidation and collection of facts, its “physiology”, i.e. the determination of the links between the facts; and the general laws governing them; and its “physiognomy”, i.e. the study of how the facts had “lived” and developed in time. In this sense, reason and imagination worked together.

    Central to Guizot’s historical thought was the notion of civilization, which was a developing, ongoing process and included not only religion, art, and philosophy, but also commerce, industry, and material prosperity. In his mind, civilization was a moral force working on the intellect and behaviours both of the individual and society at large. According to him, European civilization was characterized by its diversity, i.e. the coexistence of different social, political, and religious principles, whose mutual frictions were a fundamental source of progress. That progress in his view tended towards the emergence of a more rational world in which individual freedoms and social harmony would flourish, which in turn allowed him to distinguish Europe from ancient civilizations and from Asia and Africa, rendering Europe the continent of civilization par excellence. Within Europe, each nation played its proper part, France that of combining practical sense (which predominated in England) with a speculative spirit (particularly strong in Germany) and as incubator and European broadcasting platform for ideas and principles initially developed in other countries.

    The revolution of July 1830 seemed to confirm Guizot’s political-historiographical endorsement of mixed government. He thought of it as an equivalent of the English “Glorious Revolution” events of 1688 and approved the new regime, in which he saw the authority of tradition embodied by the king while the real power had passed to the middle classes. During the July Monarchy, Guizot played a significant part in French politics as Minister of the Interior (1830), Minister of Public Instruction (1832-37), French Ambassador in London (1840), and eventually as Minister of Foreign Affairs and leading member of the government (1840-48).

    He used his influence to stimulate historical research and organize the preservation of national heritage, especially by founding in 1834 the Comité pour la recherche et la publication des documents inédits relatifs à l’histoire de France, now known as the Comité des travaux historiques, which brought together many leading intellectuals for the purpose of documenting French history and heritage.

    As Minister of Public Instruction, Guizot prepared reforms for the French system of education, a task he had anticipated in the article series he had published in the Annales de l’Education (1811-14), in preparatory work during the first restoration, and in his Essai sur l’histoire et l’état actuel de l’Instruction Publique en France (1816). Guizot considered education a necessity for all social classes, and a requirement to prevent the formation of factions, to ensure national unity, political stability, and economic prosperity. Secondly, education should be adapted for each particular class and ensure social stability by maintaining social barriers. As a consequence, the Guizot law of 1833 ordered that there should be at least one primary school in each commune and one Ecole normale devoted to the formation of teachers in each département. As a means of enhancing the education of the middle classes, the “superior primary school” was created, on the advice of Victor Cousin’s (1831) report on educational institutions in the Netherlands and Germany (1831).

    In foreign affairs, Guizot followed a conciliatory rather than confrontational policy, advocating trade agreements with neighbouring countries. Replacing the hawkish Adolphe Thiers in order to defuse the Oriental/Rhine Crisis of 1840, Guizot as Minister of Foreign Affairs established the entente cordiale with the United Kingdom (1841-46). Overthrown by the revolution of 1848, he briefly sought refuge in England. His later years were increasingly dominated by his deepening conservatism and his religious bent. He died in 1874 in his house of Val-Richer (Calvados).

    Word Count: 1311

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  • Broglie, Gabriel de; Guizot (Paris: Perrin, 1990).

    Crossley, Ceri; French historians and Romanticism: Thierry, Guizot, the Saint-Simonians, Quinet, Michelet (London: Routledge, 1993).

    Johnson, Douglas; Guizot: Aspects of French history, 1787-1874 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).

    Rosanvallon, Pierre; Le moment Guizot (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).

    Theis, Laurent; François Guizot (Paris: Fayard, 2008).

    Valensise, Marina (ed.); François Guizot et la culture politique de son temps (Paris: Gallimard, 1991).

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Maufroy, Sandrine, 2022. "Guizot, François", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 20-04-2022, consulted 12-08-2022.