Educating Child Labourers in France: The Parliamentary Debates of 1840

By Koepke, Robert L. | Canadian Journal of History, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Educating Child Labourers in France: The Parliamentary Debates of 1840


Koepke, Robert L., Canadian Journal of History


One of the most difficult tasks the historian faces is that of understanding human motives. Evidence is hard to come by: few historical personalities leave records of their deliberations to guide us, and those few who do often leave conflicting accounts. One necessarily remains sceptical, moreover, about stated intentions and wonders about possible hidden motives.(1) Another problem is the inclination to seek a rational explanation and a single, clear motive. Applying these goals to groups rather than individuals merely compounds the difficulty.

The complications are well illustrated by the role of the French elite in the development of popular education in the nineteenth century. Why did some support and others oppose schooling for the masses? Explanations of their various positions cover a wide range, from a desire to socialize and moralize to a perceived need to train workers or a humanitarian urge to improve the lives of ordinary men and women.

Much of the debate over which motive predominated, however, is based primarily on the arguments of prominent reformers. The 1840 debates on the first French child labour law provide a more comprehensive picture of elite opinion on schooling for the people. That law included a provision requiring child labourers to attend school, the first time in France that education was made compulsory for any group. And for many representatives, that requirement was the most important part of the bill. Furthermore, while the Chamber of Peers opposed the educational component of the law, the Chamber of Deputies strongly supported it, and thus we hear the opposition in these debates as well as the reformers.

A few years ago one could argue that the child labour law had been relatively ignored. Recently, however, three excellent monographs have appeared that pay close attention to this innovative legislation: Colin Heywood, Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France; Katherine A. Lynch, Family, Class, and Ideology; and Lee Shai Weissbach, Child Labor Reform in Nineteenth-Century France.(2) While Weissbach focuses on child labour reform throughout the nineteenth century, Lynch and Heywood see the 1841 law as a key example of a growing general concern in France with children and the family. Yet none stresses the importance of education or of the parliamentary debates in understanding the law of 1841. Rather, they emphasize the early reformers who promoted restrictions on child labour and, in particular, two movements that sometimes connected and sometimes diverged: social Catholicism and a second group of reformers described variously as liberal bourgeois, moral reformers, or social economists. The essential difference between these two movements is that social Catholics were primarily concerned with moralization while bourgeois reformers stressed socialization. This distinction remainds us that moralization and socialization are not necessarily the same, or at least were not seen as such at the time, although today they are often used synonymously. The primary focus of the first, of course, was improving individual and group morality, while that of the second was forming good, or docile, citizens. Lynch does express some puzzlement over how these small reforming groups were able to influence French legislators. The precise connections, it should be pointed out, remain tenuous at best. Indeed, it is possible that the French peers and deputies had their own reasons for supporting or opposing reforms and were not necessarily persuaded by the reformers.

The discussions in both chambers were clearly focused, wide-ranging, and revealing. The results suggest that the July Monarchy legislators had no single reason for supporting compulsory education for child labourers. Nor was that key article pushed through by a coalition of groups with differing motives, as some have suggested. The problem with such explanations is the search for a single, "rational" motive, a search which assumes that underneath all the political and social rhetoric each individual involved in the debate had a firm, clear idea of what he wanted, and why. …

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