The Bourgeois Citizen in Nineteenth-Century France: Gender, Sociability, and the Uses of Emulation

By Carol E. Harrison | Go to book overview

6
Charitable Imperatives

Not even the most optimistic emulator could convince himself that all of his fellow citizens were ready to adopt the spirit of association. In bourgeois dealings with the poor, some form of charity had to precede emulation. Charity, however, proved to be even more problematic than the patronage of worker association. Charitable men discovered that the poor were no more amenable than workers to accepting bourgeois notions of work and family. More seriously, charity proved to contain a complex set of issues with the potential to shake bourgeois unity. Bourgeois Frenchmen agreed that their roles as community leaders obligated them to act as patrons of the poor. The purpose of bourgeois charity--whether municipal improvement, personal salvation, or moralization of the poor-- remained in debate, however. Male charitable associations never achieved a class-based consensus on the aims of benevolence.

Bourgeois Frenchmen could not afford simply to write the poor out of their emulative projects. Publicly visible misery and begging were symptoms of an ill-managed town and of a bourgeoisie with no sense of civic duty. If emulation were to live up to its promise of bourgeois hegemony, bourgeois example and influence had to extend into the lives of the poorest citizens. Moreover, bourgeois contact with the indigent had to remain in the realm of private initiative--of charity. State-sponsored welfare, particularly if it originated in Paris, would not serve bourgeois interests at all. If the state could provide for the provincial poor more adequately than local notables, assertions of a uniquely bourgeois capability for leadership would ring hollow.1

____________________
1
Paul Weindling, "'The Modernization of Charity in Nineteenth-Century France and Germany'", in Jonathan Barry and Colin Jones (eds.), Medicine and Charity Before the Welfare State ( London, 1991), 190-203 observes that private charitable initiatives multiplied simultaneously with the development of state welfare programmes. The nineteenth-century French state was notably reluctant to challenge private charitable provision with any centralized welfare system. The possibility of public welfare had, however, been raised, albeit to little effect, during the Revolution. See Isser Woloch, The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s ( New York, 1994), 243-54.

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