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Reinventing social welfare and philanthropy in post-Revolutionary France

May 7, 2012

Queen Mary, University of London – by Mariana Saad

Despite insistent efforts throughout the 1790s to reform public assistance in France after the collapse of the Ancien Régime institutions for caring for the poor and the sick, no permanent structure of assistance resulted. In 1799, François de Neufchâteau, Minister of the Interior, decided to launch the Recueil de mémoires sur les établissements d’humanité, a remarkable project of translation of European texts on welfare and assistance, with the aim of generating new ideas and solutions for the creation of a new type of public assistance that was consonant with republican political ideals.

My research project aims to examine the reorganisation of public assistance in post-Revolutionary France through the analysis of the 39-volumed Recueil Duquesnoy, which was edited by Adrien Duquesnoy, a distinguished political figure and a rapporteur at the Ministry of Interior. The Recueil, which has been largely ignored by historians, presented the French public with some of the most influential writers and activists on welfare matters in Europe. The volumes also served to rally the support of a very powerful network of administrators and philanthropists who sought to implement many of the reforms presented.

As Duquesnoy stated, the goal of the Recueil was to make available in the French language reports, reflections and other practical information on foreign welfare practices. He thus, for example, published short documents such as the rules of the Royal Hospital in Madrid and a report on the Hospital of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, as well as a bibliography of texts on humane establishments. But the core of the publication is made of the first (and for most of them, the only to date) translations into French of British texts, which covered 33 of the 39 volumes. These included Frederick Morton Eden’s State of the Poor, Jeremy Bentham’s Situation and Relief of the Poor, the complete reports of the British Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor (by Thomas Bernard, the treasurer of the Foundling Hospital), all Count Rumford’s essays describing his achievements in Bavaria, John Howard’s work on lazarettos, and a new version of Aikin’s Reflections on Hospitals.

Although it might seem that the Recueil published texts reflecting very different attitudes towards the poor and the sick, a study of the correspondence of many of the protagonists within France and outside reveals strong connections between British and French authors – even though their countries were locked in warfare. There was also a strong network within France of administrators and philanthropists who supplied Duquesnoy with texts to translate. Benjamin Delessert, for example, who was personally acquainted with both Bentham and Rumford, played a pivotal role in this exchange of ideas and schemes. He created soup kitchens in Paris on the Rumford model in a project financially supported by several members of the French network, including the duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt. Former chair of the Comité de Mendicité under the Constituent Assembly (1790–91), the duc had emigrated during the Terror and spent time in both England and the USA before returning to France. He translated Eden’s State of the Poor, and founded the Comité de Vaccine in 1800 for smallpox vaccination, a practice that Duquesnoy endorsed within the Recueil. In 1801, the government set up the Conseil général d’administration des Hospices civils de Paris, an institution that would become crucial for the promotion of the scientific innovations and the ideas of modern medicine presented in the Recueil. Delessert and Duquesnoy were among the first appointed members of the Conseil, and they worked to introduce within French institutions best practice found outside France. They sought, for example, to implement a number of Rumford’s inventions to improve hygiene and comfort in the hospitals, from the famous ‘Rumford stove’ to a new bed design. In the case of vaccine, they gained the support of Camus, who chaired the city’s service for orphans and foundlings, and had the latter vaccinated.

My research highlights how illusory it is to separate out the history of medical ideas, the history of philanthropy and the history of medical institutions. French philanthropists in post-Revolutionary France imagined a welfare system based on new scientific ideas and aimed at a fairer society. We see the strength of links between French and British reformers and activists and their common commitment to a welfare system based on ‘useful knowledge’. Their ideas and practices had lasting effects throughout the first half of the 19th century.

Mariana Saad is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow attached to the School of History, Queen Mary, University of London.

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