A portrait of Édouard Laboulaye1
Édouard Laboulaye (1811-1883)
Holder of the Chair of History of Comparative Legislation from 1849 to 1883
Administrator of the Collège de France from 1873 to 1883
1Three to four million people visit the Statue of Liberty every year. This monument, one of the most well-known in the world, a symbol of friendship and political cooperation between France and the United States, was a private initiative. It stemmed from the passion of a few individuals – influential and visionary, to be sure – rather than from official relations between governments. The statue is generally associated with the name of Bartholdi, and it was unquestionably the sculptor who shaped the face and famous torch that welcomed so many generations of immigrants arriving in New York harbour in the days of maritime transport. But it is to Édouard Laboulaye that we owe the idea of the project, and it was his energy and love for America that made its realization possible.
- 2 E. Laboulaye, “Les Etats-Unis et la France”, in L’État et ses limites, Paris, Charpentier, 1865, p. (...)
2The America of the time was that of the Union, the anti-slavery North of which Laboulaye was the champion in France, while the Second Empire, like England, seemed to lean more in favour of the confederated South, especially for economic reasons. In an article entitled “The United States and France”, he wrote “Irrespective of the difficulties of industry, irrespective of diplomats’ calculations, there is a prevailing fact, and that is slavery. The victory of the North is the redemption of four million men; the triumph of the South is the death sentence, the extension of servitude with all its miseries and all its infamies. […] With we French is it possible that the cause of slavery was ever popular? Our fathers were in America, with Lafayette and Rochambeau, to support liberty. That is one of our national glories; it is through this service rendered to the United States that over there we are brothers and friends. Will we be able to efface this memorable past? Will the name of France be associated with the triumph of the South, that is, with slavery eternalized, irrespective of what we do? That cannot be2.”
3That sums up Laboulaye, his passions and his energy. “The United States and France” was translated and sent to President Lincoln by John Bigelow, Consul General of the United States in Paris and friend of Laboulaye. Bigelow had the document reprinted at his own expense and announced that he had had a copy sent to every member of the French legislature, to all its diplomats, to the main press organs, and to France’s leading industrialists. The text was reproduced in many North American newspapers. Laboulaye likewise engaged in the US electoral campaign and, at the request of his American friends, put his pen to the service of Lincoln’s election as president. Thus, Édouard Laboulaye was far more than just an academic with a love for America. He was an influential personality whose action impacted on relations between France and the United States, and who played an important part in France’s intellectual and political life from 1848 to 1883.
4Who exactly was Édouard René Lefebvre de Laboulaye? It was initially as a jurist that he made himself known. His first book, L’histoire du droit de la propriété foncière en Europe depuis Constantin jusqu’à nos jours (‘The history of property law in Europe from Constantine to the present’) was celebrated by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, to which he was admitted on 17 January 1844. He travelled in Europe and studied German history and law. In 1849, at the age of 37, he became Professor of Comparative Law at the Collège de France. He was elected Administrator in 1873 and remained in the position until his death.
- 3 Cf. E. Laboulaye, “Horace Mann”, Revue des cours littéraires de la France et de l’étranger, 27 févr (...)
5Laboulaye’s beginnings were difficult: “the first time I spoke I saw everything in red; for ten years the fear of the public made my heart race3”. Yet that was where he found his way. Although he had loved Germany and admired the Prussian model, from his first lectures at the Collège de France he turned towards America and never looked away. With America he also discovered a passion for freedom: it was the key to his engagement and his life.
- 4 Cf. his text published in the present issue, pp. 55-57.
6Delivering a lecture on the United States was something unusual in 1850, as Stephen Sawyer points out4. Laboulaye was a catalyst of awakening public interest in America, aroused by the Marquis de Lafayette who reappeared in French political life in 1830. Victor Cousin had apparently encouraged Laboulaye to study America. Tocqueville had marked people’s minds with De la démocratie en Amérique, published in 1835, and Guizot had written on Washington’s life in 1839. The attention focused on America peaked in the 1850s after France’s unfortunate experience with a republican presidential system fairly similar to the one established by the US constitution – minus bicamerism, to Laboulaye’s great regret. It was also a time of the beginnings of major industrial developments in America. All this interest was reflected in literature; for instance, Baudelaire published his translations of Poe in 1852, the year of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Laboulaye was thus the precursor to a wave of opinion. The emphasis on the question of slavery and the way in which it was treated in the US furthermore revealed an important issue in French national politics: in the authoritarian period of the early Second Empire, the opposition felt deprived on its freedom, and criticism of slavery was seen as a veiled attack on the regime.
- 5 “The state does not know of the faithful, it only knows of the citizen”, Le Parti libéral, 1863, p. (...)
7Events were to turn the shy professor into an engaged tribune. “The 1848 revolution destroyed all my plans and overturned all my ideas”, wrote Édouard Laboulaye in the foreword to his Questions constitutionnelles published in 1872. He added: “it is revolutions that have made a political writer of me”. To circumvent censorship and avoid dismissal – the fate of some of his colleagues – Laboulaye interrupted his lectures on the United States and chose less sensitive subjects such as religious history. But once again it was liberty, religious this time, that he defended, inspired by William Channing in particular. He supported the equality of religions but also the separation of church and state5 – at the risk of displeasing the Catholics even though he was a believer and very attached to religion. After the liberal turn of the regime his criticism became less veiled. In 1868 he published a satirical tale Le Prince Caniche that caused a sensation.
- 6 This novel, like many of Laboulaye’s books, is available on line on the Gallica site of the Bibliot (...)
- 7 E. Laboulaye, “L’instruction publique et le suffrage universel”, in L’état et ses limites, 1865, p. (...)
8At the time, Laboulaye was already a figure on the French intellectual and literary scene. He was a brilliant editorialist and pamphleteer, a regular contributor to the Journal des Débats, and published many articles in the press and in specialized journals. Paris en Amérique6 published in 1863 under the name Doctor René Lefebvre – the part of his name that he did not usually use – earned him wide popular renown. The book had no fewer than 35 French and eight English editions. This philosophical novel, a satire of Parisian society and a plea for liberty and self-government based on the American model, was one of the major literary successes of the time. Apart from being a politician and jurisconsult, Laboulaye was also a talented story-teller, strongly attached to popular culture. Moreover, actively engaged in the subscription library and popular library movement, he was an ardent defender of the freedom of education. In this respect he fought against the state monopoly, with the main aim of education for all: “the primary condition of liberty is education for all citizens7”.
- 8 Jacques Flach, “Vie et œuvres de M. Laboulaye”, Archives du Collège de France.
9In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1884, Jacques Flach, Laboulaye’s successor to the chair of History of Comparative Legislation, described his predecessor. He saw the jurist as the founder of the historical school of law in France. He also paid homage to the politician who, in 1860, when the authoritarian empire loosened its grip, knew how to use the new strength of public opinion. “With growing energy, he calls for religious freedom, educational freedom, press freedom, municipal freedom, freedom of association and, above all, individual freedom.”8
- 9 He wrote, for example: “The constant purpose of my studies is to show that freedom and revolution a (...)
10Laboulaye, elected member of parliament in 1871, became the leader of the centre left, the mainspring of politics at a crucial time when the country was wavering between a republic and constitutional monarchy. Flach pointed out that “even if Mr Laboulaye was not the father of the republic, he was at least the godfather”. It was Henri Wallon who, on 30 January 1875, introduced the word ‘republic’ into France’s constitutional law, with a majority of votes. But Laboulaye had contributed considerably to this success with the speech that he had made to table a similar amendment – refused on 29 January under pressure from the monarchists. As a moderate republican and conservative, attached to defending freedom and mistrustful of revolutions9, he was elected irremovable senator in December 1875.
In 1866 Édouard Laboulaye, candidate for the opposition in Strasbourg, was defeated “by the campaigns”, despite his popularity among the urban electorate. After this failure, voters in Strasbourg opened a subscription for a gift for him: a beautiful inkwell. But when the author of Paris en Amérique called for a ‘yes’ vote in the 1870 plebiscite, J.A. Lafont, a radical journalist, friend of the Strasbourg republicans and later councillor and Member of Parliament for Paris, considered that the donors in 1866 had been betrayed by this rallying in favour of the regime. Lafont published a letter in opposition newspapers, demanding that the inkwell be returned. At the opening of the summer semester of 1870, Laboulaye was met at the Collège de France with cries: “Return the inkwell!”. Despite the support of a part of his audience, he ended up requesting the provisional suspension of his lectures.
Had Laboulaye betrayed his principles? In fact, he had clearly taken a stand in favour of the parliamentary regime, for example in Le Parti liberal, son programme et son avenir published in 1864. He was therefore loyal to his convictions but too moderate for the radicals who wanted to overthrow the regime. Laboulaye did not like revolutions.
- 10 E. Laboulaye was at the heart of the subscription campaign for the Statue of Liberty, launched with (...)
11This man with an austere appearance, dressed like a Quaker, was described by those who knew him as a cultivated mind, affable and forçant la sympathie. The real crowning of the career and life of Laboulaye, refused membership of the Académie Française, was unfortunately posthumous: he who had studied and admired America so much without ever crossing the Atlantic, channelled his last efforts into ensuring the successful conclusion of a project to erect a monumental statue to the glory of friendship between France and the United States of America10. This was finally accomplished in 1886, three years after his death. It is fair to associate Laboulaye’s name with this monument which, although a weighty allegory, is one that conveys an eternal ideal: the liberty that he made the goal of his lifelong struggle as a jurist, professor, politician and story-teller.
“I have no need to say which policy is, in my eyes, the only good one. This policy is embedded in the history of our past seventy-five years. Monarchy, Assemblies, Republic, Empire, Royalty, legitimate or quasi legitimate: all have fallen. One thing only has remained standing: the principles of 1789. Is this not a supreme lesson? Do we not understand that in the midst of all these ruins, neither the ideas nor the faith nor the love of France have changed. It is for liberty that our fathers fought the 1789 revolution, which is still on-going; it will end only with liberty.”
Édouard Laboulaye, Le parti libéral, son programme et son avenir, 1863.
Preface, p. XVI
1 Most of the content of this article is drawn from the biography by Walter Dennis Gray, Interpreting American democracy in France: the career of Édouard Laboulaye, 1811-1883 (Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1994), from the archives of the Collège de France, and from the data collected by Mr Jacques Gaille.
2 E. Laboulaye, “Les Etats-Unis et la France”, in L’État et ses limites, Paris, Charpentier, 1865, p. 349.
3 Cf. E. Laboulaye, “Horace Mann”, Revue des cours littéraires de la France et de l’étranger, 27 février 1869, p. 202.
4 Cf. his text published in the present issue, pp. 55-57.
5 “The state does not know of the faithful, it only knows of the citizen”, Le Parti libéral, 1863, p. 42.
6 This novel, like many of Laboulaye’s books, is available on line on the Gallica site of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
7 E. Laboulaye, “L’instruction publique et le suffrage universel”, in L’état et ses limites, 1865, p. 206. Cf. aussi “De l’éducation populaire”, in Le Parti libéral, son programme et son avenir (1863), and his book on La Liberté d’enseignement et les projets de lois de M. Jules Ferry (1880), where he opposes Jules Ferry’s ideas.
8 Jacques Flach, “Vie et œuvres de M. Laboulaye”, Archives du Collège de France.
9 He wrote, for example: “The constant purpose of my studies is to show that freedom and revolution are two very different and often contradictory things. The youth listened to me, the old conservative party sometimes shared my opinion; but I cannot flatter myself for having convinced either monarchists or republicans of divine law. The monarchists believe only in authority; they accepted the Empire and the coup d’état to be rid of the men and institutions of 1848; the republicans of before are on their knees before the almighty republic. The most advanced of the party, the Montagnards, are Ultramontanists who believe in the infallibility of Robespierre or Babeuf. […] For these worshippers of the revolution, constitutional liberties are an invention of the monarchy; they are Jacobins and proud of it, and they understand one thing only: dictatorship exercised in the name of the people, that is, by them and for them. I love democracy, that is, government of the nation by the nation and for the nation; in no way do I worship revolution”. Questions constitutionnelles, Paris, Charpentier, 1872, Préface, p. 11.
10 E. Laboulaye was at the heart of the subscription campaign for the Statue of Liberty, launched with a huge amount of publicity. On this occasion one of the first republican banquets was organized, in 1875, as well as a gala for which Gounod composed a work sung by a choir of 700 men.Haut de page
Table des illustrations
|Titre||Édouard Laboulaye (1811-1883)|
|Légende||Holder of the Chair of History of Comparative Legislation from 1849 to 1883Administrator of the Collège de France from 1873 to 1883|
|Titre||Picture editing of Judge, 1886.|
|Légende||“I have no need to say which policy is, in my eyes, the only good one. This policy is embedded in the history of our past seventy-five years. Monarchy, Assemblies, Republic, Empire, Royalty, legitimate or quasi legitimate: all have fallen. One thing only has remained standing: the principles of 1789. Is this not a supreme lesson? Do we not understand that in the midst of all these ruins, neither the ideas nor the faith nor the love of France have changed. It is for liberty that our fathers fought the 1789 revolution, which is still on-going; it will end only with liberty.”Édouard Laboulaye, Le parti libéral, son programme et son avenir, 1863.Preface, p. XVI|
Pour citer cet article
The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 58-60. ISSN 1958-1408
Marc Kirsch, « A portrait of Édouard Laboulaye », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 22 mai 2013. URL : http://lettre-cdf.revues.org/783Haut de page
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