Theories of Race

Jules Michelet

  • Jules Michelet's portrait

    Jules Michelet



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This text by the French historian and man of letters Jules Michelet—one of the French “masters of history” (Maîtres de l’histoire) along with Hippolyte Taine and Ernest Renan, according to a well known 1894 book by Gabriel Monod—illustrates the influence of the growing science of race on larger and more diffuse concepts of history and national identity. Michelet’s two great works, The History of the French Revolution (1847-53) and The History of France (1833-1867) argue for a way of understanding France and the French people that humanized the nation and centered it on the anti-clerical and anti-monarchical ideals that would achieve their most vehement expression in the Revolution of 1848. Michelet claimed to be the first person to depict the nation “as a soul and as a person,” an approach that lent itself readily to, and borrowed from, theories of race.

The most compelling of these theories, for Michelet, was to be found in Augustin Thierry’s Histoires des Gaulois (1828). In this book, Thierry argued for transhistorical racial conflict as the motor of history, with race defined in terms of origin, physical characteristics, and intellectual and moral character. For Thierry, the Gauls are but one of Europe’s races, along with the Finns, the Teutons, and the Slavs. Michelet acknowledges Thierry’s contribution but ultimately finds it to be too narrowly focused on “blood” and physical features and incapable of assessing the ongoing influence of geography and history.

A second influence on Michelet was William-Frédéric Edwards, a Jamaican-born naturalized French citizen often described as the founder of the French conception of ethnology and the preeminent race scientist in France in the first half of the nineteenth century. A trained physician and the founder of the Société Ethnologique de Paris in 1839, Edwards was credited by the distinguished anatomist Paul Broca with being the first to establish a fully modern idea of race based on the permanence of physical “types” with physical, moral, and intellectual attributes. (See also Hunt, Galton, Vogt, Haeckel, Quatrefages de Bréau, Topinard, Virchow, Deniker.) Edwards composed his 1829 Caracteres physiologiques des races humaine considéré dans leur rapports avec l’histoire [Physiological characteristics of the human races considered in their relationship with history] as a letter to Thierry’s brother, the historian Amédée Thierry.

Although Edwards’ reputation was primarily based on his insistence on the durability of physical characteristics, primarily head shapes and facial features, his overarching project, according to Ian B. Stewart, was the creation of a “natural history of man,” to be achieved by considering not only physical features but also, if secondarily, moral, and linguistic characteristics as well. (See Stewart and Blanckaert in Further Reading). This multi-disciplinary approach entailed the introduction of philology or linguistic history into the study of race, a possibility that appealed to Michelet, whom Edwards served as a personal physician.

Responding to both Thierry and Edwards, Michelet developed a theory of his own, a partially biologized conception of national character, the French in particular, that took fully into account cultural and linguistic components. The crucial difference between Michelet’s approach and that of his predecessors was that Michelet, an historian, emphasized more than they had the ways in which historical and cultural processes worked to dilute the “blood” of once-homogeneous groups and thus to attenuate the influence of biological race.

For Michelet, the French national character was defined not by an enduring biological identity alone but by a singular capacity for transformation. In his heroic vision, the “original base,” a “primitive element” comprised of a “young, malleable, and mobile race of the Gaels,” had interacted with other races in a vast process that had resulted in a nation whose dominant feature was a commitment to self-fashioning, which Michelet defined as a capacity for freedom. As he said in Volume 1 of his prodigious eighteen-volume History of France, France was composed of “race upon race, people upon people . . . France has formed herself out of these elements. . . . Let us not give too much importance either to the primitive element of the Celtic genius, or to the additions from without. The Celts have contributed to the result . . . so have Rome, Greece, and the Germans. But who has united, fused, converted these elements; who has transmuted, transformed, and made a single body of them; who has eliminated out of them our France? France herself, by that internal travail and mysterious production compounded of necessity and liberty, which it is the province of history to explain.”*

*Jules Michelet, History of France, vol. 1, trans. G. H. Smith (New York:  D. Appleton and Company, 1882), 67.  

Preface to The History of France


This arduous labor of about forty years [the writing of the History] was conceived in an instant, in the lightning flash of the July Revolution. During those memorable days a great light appeared, and I perceived France.

She possessed annals, but no history at all. Eminent men had studied her, especially from the political point of view. None of them entered into the infinite details of the diverse products of her activity (religious, economic, artistic, etc.). None of them had yet embraced the living unity of the innate and geographic elements which formed her. I was the first to perceive her as a soul and as a person. . . .

That noble historical constellation which, from 1820 to 1830, caused so great a stir—MM. de Barante, Guizot, Mignet, Thiers, Augustin Thierry—considered history from specialized and differing points of view. One was preoccupied with the racial element, another with institutions, etc., perhaps not understanding adequately how difficult it is to isolate these things, how each of them works upon the others. Do races, for example, remain the same without being influenced by changing customs? Can institutions be sufficiently studied without taking into account the history of ideas and the multitude of social conditions from which they arise? There is always something artificial about these specializations, which claim to illuminate, but which nonetheless might give faulty profiles, deceiving us about the whole, concealing the greater harmony. . . .

When I began, a book of genius existed, Thierry’s. Shrewd and penetrating, he was a discerning interpreter, a great chiseler, an admirable worker, but too enslaved to one master. This master, this tyrant, is the exclusive, systematic postulate of the permanence of races. All things considered, what makes this great book beautiful is that, in spite of this system, which could easily be seen as deterministic, one senses at all times the respiration deep down of a heart powerfully moved by hostility to fatalistic forces, to invasion, a heart full of the national soul and the right to liberty.

I greatly loved and admired him. However, shall I say it? Neither the material nor the spiritual approach was adequate for me in his book.

The physical element, the race, the common people who continue it, I thought, needed a good solid base under them, the soil, to support and nourish them. Without a geographic foundation, the common people, the historic actor, seem to walk on air as in those Chinese paintings in which there is no ground. And note that this ground is not only the theater of action. By means of food, climate, etc., it exerts influence in a hundred ways. As the nest, so the bird. As the fatherland, so the man.

Race, a strong and dominant factor in barbarian times, before the great childbirth of nations, becomes less tangible, weaker, and almost obliterated, in proportion as each nation fashions itself and becomes a person. The famous Mr. Mill says it very well: “It would be too easy to avoid the study of moral and social influences by attributing differences of character and of conduct, to innate, indestructible differences.”

Contrary to those who pursue this racial element and exaggerate its influence in modern times, I drew from history itself an enormous, and too little noticed, moral fact. It is the powerful labor of oneself on oneself, whereby France, by her own progress, transforms all her raw elements. From the Roman municipal element, from the Germanic tribes, from the Celtic clan—which have been annulled and have disappeared—we have produced in the course of time completely different results, results even contrary, to a great extent, to everything that preceded them.

Life exerts upon itself an action of self-gestation, which, from preexisting materials, creates absolutely new things. From the bread, the fruits that I have eaten, I make red and salty blood which does not at all resemble the foods from which it is derived. So goes the historical life process, and so too goes each people fabricating itself, generating itself, grinding and amalgamating elements, which probably remain there as obscure and muddled ingredients, but which are relatively insignificant compared to the long, slow travail of the great soul.

France itself has formed France, and the deterministic element of race in this process seems to me secondary. France is the daughter of her freedom. It is the life force, which we call mankind, that plays the essential role in human progress.

To sum up, history, as I saw it represented by those eminent (in several cases admirable) men, still seemed unsubstantial in its two approaches:

Not material enough, taking races into account, but not the soil, the climate, foods, and so many physical and physiological conditions.

Not spiritual enough, speaking about laws, about political acts, but not about ideas, about customs, and not about the great progressive interior movement of the national soul. (139-43)

Claude Blanckaert, “On the Origins of French Ethnology: William Edwards and the Doctrine of Race,” in George W. Stocking, Jr., ed., Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology (Madison, WI:  University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 18-55.

Edward K. Kaplan, Michelet’s Poetic Vision:  A Romantic Philosophy of Nature, Man, and Woman (Amherst:  University of Massachusetts, 1977).  

Carole Reynaud-Paligot, “Construction and Circulation of the Notion of ‘Race’ in the Nineteenth Century,” in Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 87-99.

Ian B. Stewart, “William Frédéric Edwards and the Study of Human Races in France, from the Restoration to the July Monarchy,” History of Science: An Annual Review of Literature, Research and Teaching (December 2019):