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The Republican Moment

In Phillip Nord’s “The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France” his central thesis is that the Third Republic’s longevity was due to the evolution of thought in various organizations and groups which helped to catapult democratic thought into the public sphere. Following the French Revolution and the collapse of earlier Republican governments established in 1792 and again in 1848, the Third Republic was founded in 1870. This parliamentary democracy, which was created with the most generous universal male suffrage in western Europe, was sustained for 70 years despite struggles.[1] The central struggle was between the left and the right. The left; consisting of progressive thinkers and influenced by Revolutionary ideas, were the subjects of this text. The right; conservatives, the Catholic Church, peasants, the army, and especially the dynastic elites, and those committed to a return of the Orleans or Bonaparte regimes represented the opposition.

The left-leaning reformers contributed greatly to the restructuring of civil society. Political institutions were reshaped with new values and ideologies. The author’s task, to “track republicanism’s slow march through the institutions” is accomplished well. [2] He offers a detailed analysis of how this remaking of society was heavily influenced by the Freemasons, university students and professors, commercial interests, artists, lawyers, Jewish republicans and liberal Protestants. Each of middle chapters of his work, clarify how the citizenry’s emancipation of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of association, republican motherhood and universal free education, contributed to the democratization of nineteenth century France.

The republican creed, as expressed by Nord, differed at times, but focused on the same themes: “the emancipation of conscience from the strictures of philosophical or clerical orthodoxy, the emancipation of civil society from the intrusions of state or corporate control.”[3] This emancipation of conscience and freedom of thought were values highly praised by university students and personnel, masons and artists who insisted on the right to self-government and who promoted democratic reforms.[4] Freemasons refuted Catholic notions of moralism because they believed that they contradicted an individual’s sovereignty and that free thought and rationalism were the methods to emancipating ones conscience. University personnel took up the cause of science and empirical methods of learning as a way to counteract the hold that the clergy had had on morality. Partisans of science employed free thinking to shape the radically new view of man as a political being. Nord shows that, unfortunately this free thought lead some to view that “certain races and civilizations of men had ascended through time to a position of superiority.”[5] Pseudo-sciences like scientific racism and craniometry which “situated men on the evolutionary scale according to the size and shape of their brain” did little to advance true democratic ideals, but did promote an emancipation of conscience and was driven by a new found freedom from the structures of Church sponsored education as more universities were granted sponsorship and funding from the state.[6]

The author noted that in a speech by Léon Gambetta in 1872, a new social class had been born in France and that these new men would replace the old notables. He spoke of a conflict born of a divide that separated “the liberal party from the republican party, the haute bourgeoisie from the more middling bourgeoisie.”[7] This emergence of a middle class contributed greatly to the spread of republican values in France. Nord identified the establishment of a national union, the Union Nationale du Commerce et de l’Industrie (UNCI) as a significant development of this trend. Membership in the organization expanded from 20 at its foundation in 1858, to 6,195 by 1872 and consisted of middle class merchants and manufacturers of textiles and garments.[8] This organization provided this growing middle class with the freedom of association. Initially, members were denied the franchise, but as their financial influence increased, businessman pressured the Chamber of Commerce to allow universal suffrage for union members provided they pay a special poll tax. Advocating for free trade and lower trade barriers, they stood squarely opposed to the notables and elites who sought to advance an isolationist and protective agenda.

Free trade, a key tenet of this merchant class, stood in stark contrast to the values of the bourgeois oligarchs and dynastic elites who held close ties to Bonapartist and Orleanist establishments.[9] In fact, this promotion of free association and union membership which espoused the values of free trade and commercial liberty went hand in hand with political democracy. Nord argued that the union was comprised of a small number of republicans from the beginning. As businessmen became more and more at odds with the establishment, they turned to the UNCI for support. A promotion of cooperation between labor and business was also uniquely responsible for this spread of republican ideals as traditionally, labor had been conservative in their political views.

Nord further argued that the Jewish community in France was uniquely important to its democratization. The lack of centralized authority in the Jewish community situated it well for republican ideas. Jews embraced republican ideas and values and participated in republican philosophical debate.[10] Because Judaism was organized in such a way with no “infallible authority” or no “pontiff or sovereign” and recognized “nothing with resembles a monarchical or feudal mode of organization,” a Jewish leader made the case that the synagogue was a “mini-republic.”[11]

Like the Masons, the Jews depended on women as republican mothers. Women had a unique role to play in the household. As the moral arbitrator and source of love and compassion, women were tasked with educating younger generations for a republican life. Jews believed that women should be well educated so that they could pass on their learning to their children.[12] Masons advocated for reforms to marriage laws because, they argued, “[marriage] should not be a relationship of subordination, lord ruling over serf, but an association of moral equals united by mutual respect and loving intimacy.”[13] There are similarities to how society in general was being transformed. The same language used to describe marriage was used to describe the relationship of the citizenry to the state. This isn’t to say women achieved equal rights, far from it, but, women’s role in the formation of the republic was clear, “to transform the home into a moral environment, [and teach] children…a new set of lessons: lessons of reciprocity and solidarity that would prepare them for republican citizenship.”[14] Nord noted that Jews enjoyed a special relationship with Third Republic and remained one of the regimes most loyal factions.

The Protestant community on the eve of the Third Republic was divided into two camps, the liberals and evangelicals. Liberal Protestants adhered to no single political position, but as noted by the author, leaned more to the Bonapartist than to the republican side. This changed as a result of theological liberalization and a split as a result of a campaign to advance democracy within the church. Those who sought to advance democracy stood in contradiction to those who sought to advance orthodoxy. The latter group saw the orthodox group as “crypto-papists and authoritarians.”[15] As liberal theology was explored, a rise in the commitment of republicanism went hand in hand and a new “civic religion” was formed.

This schism between the evangelicals and liberals promoted the commitment of the Reformed Church towards a “democratic ecclesiology and a Unitarian faith that could tolerate both the questioning intellect and a transcendental aspiration.”[16] The promulgation of these values became part of what Nord called, “the republican mystique” which was institutionalized in the education system and was able “to replicate itself across generations.”[17]

Once a national, secular, universal education system was established, the tenets of republicanism could be disseminated quickly. Masons promoted and advocated for secular and universal primary education, “education, as Masons conceived it, was at once practical, moral and regenerative”.[18] Those on the left and free thinkers rejected clerical education because it was thought to be a tool of indoctrination into the Roman Catholic Church rather than into republican ideals. Gambetta called for a universal system of secular education as a means of educating a class of citizens to serve in newly formed decentralized institutions.[19]

As in the Jewish community, Protestants were organized in consistories. When originally established, notables served in these governing bodies. However, as democracy and free thinking spread, suffrage did also. In the 1860’s a new institution was formed, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU).[20] Members lobbied the notables of the consistory for more consistent and aggressive decisions promoting Jewish interests. Contrary to the consistory which operated behind closed doors, the AIU used public opinion to promote its values. The Alliance’s strength will rely on “its willingness to ‘set in motion that great lever of the modern era, public opinion’” another great tenet of democracy.[21]

Philip Nord argued that a perfect storm came together to advance democracy in Third Republic France. Institutions, some newly established and some reformed, and left-leaning reformers, greatly contributed to the emancipation of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom to form associations to build alliances and collaborate between classes, republican motherhood and universal secular education, all contributed to the advancement of democratic thought. These circumstances promoted modernization and democratization and gave the Third Republic the strength needed to sustain itself for seventy years.


Nord, Phillip. The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth Century

France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

[1] Philip Nord, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1995, 1.

[2] Nord, The Republican Moment, 13.

[3] Nord, The Republican Moment, 251.

[4] Ibid., 250.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Nord, The Republican Moment, 42.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Ibid., 49.

[9] Nord, The Republican Moment, 55.

[10] Ibid., 65.

[11] Ibid., 79.

[12] Ibid., 79.

[13] Ibid., 28.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid., 91.

[16] Ibid., 114.

[17] Ibid., 114.

[18] Ibid., 26.

[19] Ibid., 133.

[20] Ibid., 68.

[21] Ibid., 69.

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