Nations are an ancient form of political and social organization. It was only in the eighteenth century Age of Revolutions, however, that nations came to be seen as the ultimate source of political authority. And it was only in the French Revolution that nations came to be seen as political constructions, capable of being shaped by conscious political programs. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), the government in fact introduced what can be considered ambitious “nation-building” programs, particularly in respect to language. Initially, the Napoleonic regime (1799-1815) continued these programs. But as the regime transformed itself into an Empire, and annexed larger and larger areas of Europe, programs of “Frenchification” became impractical. At the same time, it also became impossible to identify a single “nation” from whose sovereign authority the emperor derived his power. For these reasons, the architects of the regime were compelled to present the emperor himself as both the source of unity and sovereign authority in the territories he ruled. My talk will discuss all these issues, and show how the Napoleonic regime’s inability to make use of the powerful revolutionary concept of the nation constituted one of its fatal weaknesses.
David A. Bell is a historian of early modern France, with a particular interest in the political culture of the Old Regime and the French Revolution. He attended graduate school at Princeton, where he worked with Robert Darnton, and received his Ph.D. in 1991. From 1990 to 1996 he taught at Yale, and from 1996 to 2010 at Johns Hopkins, where he held the Andrew W. Mellon Ψhair in the Humanities, and served as Dean of Faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences. He joined the Princeton faculty in 2010. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of six books, most recently (with Anthony Grafton) a textbook, The West: A New History (Norton, 2018).