Migration Control in the North Atlantic World: The Evolution of State Practices in Europe and the United States from the French Revolution to the Inter-War Period

By Andreas Fahrmeir; Olivier Faron et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
The Eighteenth-Century Citizenship
Revolution in France

Peter Sahlins

The birth of modern citizenship in France is conventionally attributed to the political revolution of 1789. According to Rogers Brubaker (1992: 39), in a restatement of the received wisdom:

By sweeping away the tangled skein of privilege — regional liberties and
immunities, corporate monopolies, fiscal exemptions, vestigial seigneurial
rights, and so on — the Revolution created a class of persons enjoying
common rights, bound by common obligations, formally equal before the
law. It substituted a common law for privilege (etymologically, private law),
citoyens for privilégiés [sic].1

In this narrative, the French Revolution, in global terms, marks the passage from the ‘ancient’ citizenship to the ‘modern’. The ‘ancient’, or ‘first citizenship’ on which Peter Riesenberg has recently reflected,2 was a set of economic and political privileges held by a small and wealthy minority of the population, whether in small city-states or larger monarchies. It was fundamentally hierarchical and exclusive. The Italian city-states of the thirteenth and fourteenth century developed the most elaborate example of an ‘ancient’ citizenship, inspired by the classical examples of Greece (following the rediscovery of Aristotle in the twelfth century) and Rome (founded on the commentary of the sixth-century Institutes and the Corpus juris civilis of Justinian). As the concept and practice of the ‘citizen’ spread to the ‘New Monarchies’ (France, Spain, and England) in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the citizen became, in this traditional view, no more than a mere subject.3 The first citizenship was thus fundamentally hierarchical and exclusive, amounting to at most a bundle of privileges held by local and national ruling elites.

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