Current Institutional Affiliation
Lecturer, Social Studies, Harvard University

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2010
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, Harvard University
The Rights of Man and Paris Real Estate in the French Revolution

My dissertation will study the seizure of private property by the state during the French Revolution. The Revolution created a crisis for property rights by sweeping away the foundations that had defined them under the Old Regime. If the social compact guarantees property, as Rousseau claimed, and the social order collapses, then how can anyone be sure of what they own? The problem became concrete in 1792, when the Legislative Assembly passed laws mandating that property be seized from émigrés and sold for the benefit of the state treasury. I will focus on confiscations in the city of Paris, where the presence of apartment buildings full of tenants made property seizure particularly messy (and the conversion of seized mansions into government offices left a legacy visible to this day). How did the process of property seizure influence the problematic concept of property? At this early stage, I suspect that the Jacobin state’s decision to seize property from “bad” citizens and sell it to “good” ones made it the arbiter of property rights, imposing a new definition of property that broke radically from the Old Regime model. If this is true, then property seizure, a violation of the Rights of Man, may have effectively secured the status of private property. At the heart of my approach is the idea that the unfolding of events can transform the concepts that put them into motion. The relationship between concepts and events is at the heart of historical change, but it is not only the concern of the past. In the United States we also live in a society founded on ideas, and as we struggle with how to interpret the content of those ideas in a document such as the Constitution, the question of how historical events transform ideas becomes quite immediate.