The Problem of Publicite in the Archives of Second Empire France
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In his scathing essay on the coup d’état that brought France’s Second Empire to power, Karl Marx produced some of his most memorable (or at least quotable) musings on the nature of history. “Men,” he wrote, “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”1 Focused on material conditions, Marx’s criticism did not extend to the Archives, where Louis Napoleon’s imperial government sought to control the conditions for men to write French history. For Léon de Laborde, the director general of the Imperial Archives of France (1857–68), his institution was destined to become a critical tool in the Empire’s quest for historical and political legitimacy. As the preeminent repository of French state memory, the Imperial Archives were well positioned to direct the destinies of French historical writing. “Government,” Laborde opined, “has no better means to prevent the writing of bad books than to provide scholars with the means to write good ones.” By opening the “arcane, impenetrable Archives,” Laborde explained, the “light of history” could once again shine from its true source.2 Creating the conditions for men to write imperial histories meant inviting scholars to the Archives to aid them in their search for historical truth, and for Laborde (among others ) that truth was the voice of the ofacial record. The centralization of historical documents under the watchful eye of trained archivists would provide what the director called “the amenable conditions of liberal publicit é” necessary for the production of solid histories that would spread the “light of history” to the nation.3 Laborde’s belief in the “light of history,” however, blinded him to the possibility that welcoming scholars to the Archives also invited conbict over the deanition of “good books.” While Laborde had faith that the Archives held a single, self-evident truth, liberal publicité might aid and abet challenges to the Empire’s interpretation of history and its political legitimacy. In spite of conscious efforts to open the institution in a bid to control the production of historical knowledge, the Empire remained unaware that the Archives also functioned on their own terms. The archival policy of publicité introduced the French public to its Archives and set the terms for what became a battle between state and citizen for the right to speak for national history in Second Empire France. Publicité and the Public in the Archives of France This battle would be fought over access to the Archives and the meaning and substance of publicité.4 When Laborde referred to the “liberal publicité” of the Imperial Archives, he implied a complex of texts, practices, and procedures that rendered the Archives public. Archival access, albeit limited, was central to Laborde’s vision of the future of French history and, by association, French politics. While the Second Empire searched history and the Archives for evidence to shore up its legitimacy (funding works on Caesar, staging historical pageants , and creating a cult of the arst Napoleon), publicité called on the scholarly public to play a central role in this endeavor.5 The Empire welcomed scholars to its Imperial Archives and, under Laborde’s direction, produced publications and facilities that would make the institution 20 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ The Problem of Publicité in the Archives of Second Empire France Jennifer S. Milligan ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ more accessible than ever before.6 Laborde argued that archival access not only encouraged the production of “good books,” it was also good policy. As historians and governments across Europe became increasingly interested in organizing and mining state records in the name of national histories, France could hardly tout its modernity if it were perceived as unwilling to communicate historical documents. The Empire could reap the fruits of its Archives and realize its own historical destiny if it instituted proper archival policy, and publicité was the key to success. Publicité meant much more than “renown,” or publicity ’s current connotation of advertising.7 Publicité implied a public-ness that both invited the public into the physical space of the Archives and bound the public interest to the contents and workings of the institution— and thus to the government that guaranteed the institution . Decrees deaned the Archives as the depository of papers of public interest. Inventories were published to guide the scholars through the vast archival past. Administrative protocols governed the movement of documents . Systems of classiacation organized the morass...