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Bureaucrats and Beggars: French Social Policy in the Age of the Enlightenment.

In 1972, when Thomas Adams completed the dissertation upon which this book is based, it was possible to see the emergence of the welfare state as simply a natural development of Enlightenment thought. Eighteen years later, when this book was published, the lines of historical development were becoming much more muddled. The dissertation has been widely cited in the literature on poverty and social policy, and Adams has kept up with the burgeoning literature in the field. The book's tone is still very much of the optimistic earlier era, the more noteworthy as Adams has no doubt gained insight into the world of "bureaucrats and beggars" in a career at the NEH. His reading of sources reveals a sympathetic understanding of both groups.

Adams has singled out an experiment in social welfare policy for his analysis of thought and administration. The depots de mendicite were founded in the 1760s to deal with the beggars of France who were increasingly seen as a serious problem to both state and society. Administrators of Old Regime institutions, some of whom had read Enlightenment thinkers on the problems of society, tried to maintain a balance between assistance and repression. At the very moment when the physiocrats were lobbying for economic liberty and recognition of agriculture as the key to the French economy, social thinkers and administrators, perceiving problems of poverty and unemployment in both country and city, found a new role for government in creating employment and guaranteeing subsistence. Recognizing such a role meant creating a "clinical" view of society. Here Adams' work joins Michel Foucault's general project, though without the latter's slipperiness, and resembles appropriately Keith Baker's study of Condorcet, whose maitre, Turgot, is one of Adams's main characters.(1)

At the most theoretical level, Adams describes a shift in anthropological assumptions:

While a form of behavior modification seemed to displace an older moralism, another development was at least as important: the emergence of a new civic credo that began to assert itself in discussion of how the alienated passions of the idler should be tamed. Amid discussions of techniques of correction, a new conviction took hold: that formerly abject victims could be transformed into autonomous citizens by a careful preservation of "the appearance of liberty" (viii).

He is describing an element of the "liberal illusion," more profoundly analyzed by William Reddy.(2) Adams is not so ambitious, adhering more closely to the terms of eighteenth-century debates.

Adams tells the story of the depots, their emergence as a temporary institution to supplement the hospital and the prison, their growth and tendency to become "permanent" as administrators began arresting domiciled beggars as well as vagrants in an effort to discipline the workforce, their partial suppression at the behest of provincial estates, "provincially-minded" administrators, and those seeking economies in the crisis of the 1770s, and their muddling on into the French Revolution. For him, it is not only that the depots provide a glimpse of the Enlightenment in action, but that they represented the most thorough-going reform of the last decades of the Old Regime. He may be claiming too much for the one institution, but it certainly was important both in the administrative experience of Enlightenment-era bureaucrats and in laying the groundwork for the social legislation of the French Revolution. Adams has studied more fully than anyone else the considerable contemporary literature on the theme of mendicity. Some of it was published, but a great deal remained in the form of reports and correspondence in national and departmental archives, as the problem was studied over and over, often by the same people who moved up the career ladder of state service.

The book begins with a discussion of beggars and local administration. Readers will find more concerning local functioning in the works of Colin Jones and Robert Schwartz.(3) But Adams has a contribution to make as well, particularly on Brittany and Paris, and also in reporting how some working people tried to deposit their relatives in depots, just as the elite sent theirs to prison by lettres de cachet.

Adams's real contribution is in his tracing of a national debate, involving royal intendants and regional parlements, local administrators and the republic of letters. Adams reconstructs the contemporary debate involving physiocrats, Encyclopedists, and societes d'agriculture. He analyzes the opinions of the societes and intendants solicited by Controller General Bertin. He discusses the commission of 1764, which studied the question. He considers the role of Bertier de Sauvigny fils as rapporteur of the commission in 1766 and, in effect, commissaire de la mendicite. He traces the arguments of Turgot, of Lomenie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse and author of a key 1775 report, and others who would go on to top positions as France headed toward Revolution.

Adams leaves the impression of great continuity of debate from the mid-eighteenth century through the Revolutionary period. His study of the language of reform is compelling. More provocatively, he tries to link the assassination of Bertier in 1789, often seen simply as brutal crowd behavior, to conspiracy among administrators, fears of famine, and memories of the depots. He hasn't proven that connection, but he builds a very powerful case. It is one more way in which Adams has given life to the subject of administration.

David G. Troyansky Universite de Limoges


1. Keith Michael Baker, Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics (Chicago, 1975).

2. William M. Reddy, Money and Liberty in Modern Europe: A Critique of Historical Understanding (Cambridge, 1987).

3. Colin Jones, Charity and Bienfaisance: The Treatment of the Poor in the Montpellier Region, 1740-1815 (Cambridge, 1982); Robert M. Schwartz, Policing the Poor in Eighteenth-Century France (Chapel Hill, 1988).
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Author:Troyansky, David G.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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