A great deal has been written about the culture of French elites on the eve of the Revolution. Daniel Mornet, Robert Darnton, Antoine Lilti, and Vivian Gruder, among others, have all studied how they conceptualized their world and how cultural norms were transformed in the years immediately preceding the Revolution.[1] This article is a contribution to this problematic. It develops some initial findings from a much lengthier study that examines the interests and ideas of a group of Parisian elites by studying the letters published in a sampling of French newspapers. In late eighteenth-century Paris, newspaper readers tended to fit within elite Parisian society, much in the manner that Jack Censer describes in his study of the Old Regime Press.[2] Letters to the editor from readers thus provide a way of probing the manner in which the people of Paris in the last years of the Old Regime thought about their culture and society.

Here I focus on the Journal de Paris and the role that this newspaper served for its readers, exploring what information can be gleaned from a censored publication and examining what insights letters to the editor offer. Second, I will present an outline of the sociology of readers who wrote letters to the editor. Finally, I will offer some reflections on the content of the letters themselves, on the relationship between the press and its readers, and on how the paper functioned as a discursive space.

Introducing the Source

The Journal de Paris, the first daily published in the capital, provided a range of information about significant events and activities in the city and the surrounding provinces. The paper began publication in 1777, and it continued its daily runs into the 1830s. The newspaper's longevity was unique. Furthermore, its daily publication schedule set it apart from other contemporary French papers. During the twelve years preceding the Revolution, only one other daily challenged the Journal de Paris for the Parisian market. Of course, after the Revolution began, the number of newspapers increased dramatically, but a great many of these publications were boom-and-bust enterprises lasting less than a year. The Journal de Paris, however, weathered the economic and political turmoil of the time and continued to publish.

By 1789, the Journal had enjoyed over a decade of publication. Both its format and content attracted a wide audience of newspaper readers. In The French Press in the Age of Enlightenment, Jack Censer argues that "the Journal de Paris provided an important addition [to the Parisian market], perhaps because of its lively, less ponderous approach and its daily publication schedule."[3] Although by May 1789 there were thirty-seven other newspapers in Paris, with twenty-nine foreign papers also in circulation, the Journal de Paris stood out as the only daily.[4] The Journal's capacity to adapt to a changing market and political climate attested to its continuing resonance with readers. Estimates of the Journal's circulation in 1789 range from seven to fifteen thousand copies.[5] But it is well known that reading in the eighteenth century was a social activity and that newspapers were shared among many readers in reading rooms, cafés, and bars.[6] Thus one might surmise that the circulation numbers of the paper represented only a fraction of its total readership.

The prerevolutionary Journal has been little studied for its political content, in part because it was censored, and thus many scholars assume it lacked any such content. As a censored publication, the Journal would not include direct critiques of government officials, church leaders, or their policies. Censorship shaped the way politically relevant thoughts were expressed. But, I would argue, it did not entirely eliminate them from the paper. If we broaden the lens through which we evaluate politics to include debates about how society was changing and ought to change, the Journal de Paris becomes a fertile source for understanding how newspaper readers educated themselves and engaged in a kind of indirect, virtual politics.

Among the many types of information included in this brief, four-page paper were letters written to the editors. Here hundreds of readers wrote over the years to share their thoughts about a range of issues as expansive as those covered in the paper's other sections. Sometimes such letters responded to events taking place in Paris—the activities of royalty and the aristocracy, performances at the theater, or events in the city streets. Elsewhere they suggested ways to improve health, to educate readers about new technologies, and to provide funds and services to the poor, hungry, and orphaned. They also entered into debates—disputing facts printed in the paper, countering with their own evidence, and submitting it for the public to judge. The letters thus gave voice to the newspaper readership of Paris in the years leading up to the transformative project of the Revolution.

The portion of the Journal sampled here consists of all letters to the editors printed between January 1787 and December 1789. To interpret the contents, a database was created, including the date each letter was published, the author, the author's profession, the author's residence, the date of submission, the thematic heading given to the letter by the editor, the general topic of the letter, and a summary of its contents.[7] My study here evaluates the readers by analyzing who they were, where they lived, what they did, and what they thought. It then explores the newspaper editors' participation in public discourse by printing—and thus, perhaps, privileging—letters from certain regions and on certain topics with varying promptness. Some letters were printed within two or three days of the date that the letter was written, for example, while some reviews of theater productions were not printed until two weeks or a month after the date they were written. By evaluating the contributions of both the writers and the editors, this study gives new insight into the interaction between the newspaper's readers and the information published in the Journal.

Sociology of the Readership

For the three years analyzed here, nearly one thousand letters to the editor were published in the Journal de Paris. Of the seven to fifteen thousand subscribers, a little more than three hundred (or 2.5 to 5 percent) might have seen their letters published in the newspaper each year.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify all of the individuals who used the Journal as a discursive space, because not every letter discloses the author's name. Overall, 85 percent of the letters were signed, but of these some writers gave their full name, while others used only a pen name or an initial. Thus, thirty-two of the letters' authors were designated only as "un abonné," a subscriber to the paper, and others referred to themselves with phrases such as "a French soldier" or "the friend of decency." Significantly, after the Revolution began, many writers began to call themselves simply "citizen."

In all, 47 percent of the letters (448) were signed by an author who also indicated social position or identity. The question of authorship is complicated, because information about the authors themselves is limited to what they themselves disclosed. While scholarship on letters to the editor in France during this period remains limited, scholars of eighteenth-century American newspapers have problematized the question of authorship by carefully tracking the use of pseudonyms in political essays and letters printed in American papers. Eran Shalev in particular has studied the use of classical pseudonyms, arguing that the pen names afforded a "common medium and framework within which Americans could articulate their disagreements and reach consensual assumptions regarding their shared identity."[8] Authors writing under these fictitious names comprised more than half of the signed tracts studied by Shalev. In contrast, letters were only very rarely signed with a classical name in the Journal de Paris. Instead, pseudonyms tended to be generic, with authors identifying themselves only as "a Genevan" or "a Christian." Excluding those letters that do not clearly reveal the profession of the author, 332 of the letters, or about a third of the total, can be categorized into easily discernible socio-occupational positions. While it is possible that some of these authors also used pen names, the markers of social position nevertheless provide valuable insight into the audience that the Journal de Paris engaged in collective dialogue.

The readership of the Journal seems to have included a wide cross-section of social rankings, with the letter writers coming from many walks of life. One might anticipate that voices from the privileged estates would figure prominently in an Old Regime newspaper, and this assumption is valid for the Journal de Paris. Members of the nobility and clergy wrote in regularly. One-sixth of letters to the editor were authored explicitly by the nobility, who seemed to write most often on questions of social status, correcting rumors that had been spread about their good name, or airing disputes so that readers might judge the truth for themselves. Members of the clergy likewise authored one-sixth of the letters during this three-year period. The topics they addressed ranged widely, but they almost never wrote about theology. Parish clergymen frequently wrote to ask for more public support for the social services they provided, while numerous clergymen who held the rank of an "abbé" proffered observations on the classics, literature, or science. Nevertheless, even though the voices of the clergy and the nobility were frequently heard, it is noteworthy that both groups combined still comprised a minority of the letters that were signed.

Professions ranged widely among members of the Third Estate, who authored two-thirds of the signed letters, These contributors may be categorized as follows: government officials; men of letters; the military; agriculturists, individuals in arts and letters; artisans and men of commerce; and members of the liberal professions. Government officials, which include mayors, postmasters, police officials, government agents, and, in 1789, deputies to the National Assembly, comprised the single largest contingent of contributors, with nearly one-fourth of the signed letters. But men in the liberal professions also presented a prominent voice among the letter writers; doctors, lawyers, and architects expressed their opinions in one-sixth of the letters. The third largest category included an assortment of men of letters: academics, teachers, and students authored 12 percent. The remaining groups of artisans and men of commerce, writers from the military, artists, and agricultural workers each authored fewer than 5 percent of the letters. While conditions in the countryside and the status of harvests were recurrent themes in many letters, men directly involved in agriculture comprised only 1 percent of the letter writers.

Women also sometimes made their way onto the pages of the Journal de Paris, contributing at least nine letters to the paper in three years. The internal evidence of several letters suggests that significantly more women contributed letters to the editor, but only nine explicitly declared themselves as women. Two of the women in question identified themselves as nobility, but the others did not indicate social status. They tended to identify themselves generically, calling themselves, "a subscriber," "a widow," or "a woman." While their concerns differed, their most common concerns were their philanthropic projects.[9]

This cursory list demonstrates the disparate backgrounds of Journal de Paris subscribers. Their concerns drew them into dialogue with their fellow readers, as these amateur writers contributed their perspectives to the open forum of the newspaper. For many of them, writing in to the Journal may well have been their only opportunity to see themselves in print. Those who authored letters represented an expansive community of literate Parisians who were much more apt to pen a letter to the newspaper than to author a book or to publish a pamphlet. Indeed, while the socio-occupational position of many writers resembles that of Robert Darnton's analysis of the socio-occupational position of French book writers in 1750, this initial study of letters printed in the Journal de Paris suggests that students, writers, agricultural workers, artisans, and men of commerce were substantially more likely to write letters than to write books. This forum would thus seem to have offered a chance to print the views of individuals lower in the social hierarchy, opening up the experience of Enlightenment culture to a broad community of readers and writers.[10]

Content of the Journal de Paris

An analysis of the content of the letters conveys a sense of what readers thought most important and what topics they most discussed in the late 1780s. Most letters can be grouped into the categories of scientific observations and technological innovations; charitable projects; performance and visual arts; literary excerpts; death announcements; city and national government news; and current event reports. As evidenced by this list, the paper covered a wide range of issues concerning events in the city, social projects, and articles intended to educate. The categories also suggest that the expertise of the Journal's readers varied dramatically, and that they expressed their expertise and shared their ideas on subjects as diverse as the classics, natural history, and medicine.

While the topics in the letters to the editor covered a wide spectrum, there were common themes that emerged from this sampling. Some letters were designed for publicity, such as to advertise a product or to promote a theatrical performance. For example, one man wrote to recommend the false teeth he had purchased from M. de Chemant, which did not smell or lose their beauty. He wrote that he had had them for more than six months, and he was very happy with the product.[11] Like this satisfied customer, most of the writers who used their letters as advertisements couched their endorsements in terms of their personal experience of a product or their personal investment in the outcome of a performance. They spoke anecdotally, confiding in their audience.

A second group of letters may be characterized as pedantic critiques, that is, efforts to set the record straight on previously published material or to quell a rumor deemed false or even libelous. Sometimes these letters concerned issues that bordered on the banal, such as the proper use of a Latin word,[12] or the correct street address for a certain family.[13] Often such letters were followed by animated responses from other readers who challenged and debated with each other. One of the most common themes in this category was an individual's disavowal of an essay printed in his name or of a political act that he claimed not to have committed. For these writers, personal reputation seemed of paramount importance. They responded violently to acts of "literary brigandage" that stole their good name.[14] Where personal honor was at stake, writers' responses were vitriolic. Charles Walton has written extensively on the importance of personal honor among public officials at this time.[15] The tenor of these letters tends to support his claim.

A third group of letters seemed to touch most profoundly on how Enlightenment ideas were made manifest in daily actions. These letters were concerned with improving one's world through educating one's neighbors, promoting innovation, and providing for the needs of others. Letters in this category sought to inform and change the society of the day.

Efforts to educate and reform society took many forms. Writers expressed, for example, their feelings about shared public space within the city. An anxious son reported that his elderly, sixty-three-year-old mother was injured because her cab had been going too fast in the Marais.[16] Another man recounted an accident in which he was involved. A carriage nearly ran him over, and, as a man "with legs of seventy-five years," he could not get out of the way quickly. He submitted this account in the hope that his letter might be of some use to the poor pedestrians of the capital.[17] Both of these men wrote out of concern for themselves and their loved ones, but also because they believed that informing others might help stimulate change in their environment. Like many of the citizens who submitted their thoughts and demands to Paris' daily paper, they appealed to the public—that is, the reading audience—to judge for themselves and to change their city.

Scientific innovation also figured prominently in the letters as a way of understanding the world and improving the lives of those in it. Sometimes the letters entailed more abstract treatments of scientific observations, such as a letter on astronomy that described the earth's rotation.[18] Other contributions focused on pragmatic suggestions for mediating the relationship between humans and nature. For example, one writer advocated adding Ben Franklin's invention, lightning rods, to country homes to reduce the risk of fire in the cold, dry season.[19] Discussions of scientific discovery often focused on medicine, as practitioners in this field puzzled out the causes of disease and reported on effective treatments. Explanations for the cause of tooth decay,[20] discussions of the effectiveness of mercury as a treatment for illness,[21] and questions about how to discover the cause of an illness after a patient's death[22] were each presented as updates in an ongoing process of discovery.

A significant portion of the letters also expressed concern about the social welfare of the community. These concerns became increasingly salient as readers endeavored to cope with the ramifications of the terrible winter of 1788–1789. Perhaps in response to concerns about famine and the hunger of many Parisians, several letter writers advocated support for philanthropic efforts.[23] Some of this correspondence described acts of charity and kindness witnessed by writers. Others suggested that such behavior was exemplary and should be emulated. For instance, one man who was sitting at a café was overwhelmed by the kindness of the owner whom he saw feeding six of the poor who came to his café.[24] A writer calling himself simply "a Frenchman" wrote that he had been so inspired by the generous donations of those around him that he, too, would like to donate funds to the poor.[25] These authors indicated that they had felt moved by what they had seen, and now they were acting in a manner that had been modeled for them by others. Several of the letters advertised parishes or societies that needed help raising money for the poor, inviting the public to donate to their cause.

Often, societies or parishes wrote in the hope of raising money to feed the poor in the neighborhood. In some cases, institutions were set up to help young people in particular. One letter promoted a home that sheltered young girls, providing for their moral and practical education, and preparing them for respectable trades.[26] Similarly, another letter writer presented a progress report about a school that trained poor boys to be cab drivers.[27] These acts of secular "bienfaisance" suggest the investment Parisians made in bettering society by educating and feeding the poor. While Parisians went about these efforts in different ways, they appeared to share the prevailing desire to improve society. The social investment of readers in changing the world around them can be understood as a form of virtual politics. Such a critical attitude and engagement would, of course, be vastly expanded and transformed in the era of the French Revolution.[28]


As this paper has demonstrated, the letters written to the editor in the Journal de Paris reveal the commitment of Parisian readers to the possibility of transforming their society. Readers from the nobility, clergy, and the Third Estate all weighed in on the questions that concerned them. This newspaper provided a forum where farmers and artisans, lawyers and doctors, parish priests and noblemen engaged in a dialogue. As the discussion of the content of these letters has conveyed, the discursive space created by letters to the editor served a variety of purposes: as a space for advertisement, information dissemination, and for critique.

Perhaps such letters bring us closest to Kant's vision of the Enlightenment, of making public use of one's reason and putting it into action to better one's world. The men and women who wrote to the paper engaged in dialogues with the editors and each other, interacting and conceptualizing their world together. Those submitting their thoughts to the editors of the Journal de Paris participated in a community of readers structured by the debates and ideas articulated through these shared, published letters.

In the summer of 1789, the bans of censorship were lifted, and political discussion became commonplace in the paper. In many ways, the paper persisted in its project of knowing and bettering the world. In other ways, however, the Revolution changed everything. Politics soon became a dominant motif in a great many letters—but that is a subject for another article.

    1. Daniel Mornet, Les origines intellectuelles de la Révolution Française (1715–1787) (Paris: A. Colin, 1933); Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), Antoine Lilti, Le monde des salons: Sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 2005); Vivian R. Gruder, The Notables and the Nation: The Political Schooling of the French, 1787–1788 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).return to text

    2. See Jack Richard Censer, The French Press in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 1994), 185-89.return to text

    3. Jack Richard Censer, The French Press in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 1994), 10.return to text

    4. Hugh Gough, The Newspaper Press in the French Revolution (Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1988), 5.return to text

    5. For estimates of total subscriptions to the Journal de Paris in 1789, see Claude Labrosse and Pierre Rétat, Naissance du journal révolutionnaire, 1789 (Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1989), 56; Censer, The French Press, 217; William J. Murray, "A Philosophe in the French Revolution: Dominique-Joseph Garat and the Journal de Paris," in Frederick Krantz, ed., History from Below: Studies in Popular Protest and Popular Ideology (New York: Blackwell, 1988), 164.return to text

    6. Censer, The French Press, 10.return to text

    7. While most of the letters divulge all or most of this information, some letters do not contain any more than the letter and its thematic heading; thus, complete information is impossible to obtain for all of the letters.return to text

    8. Eran Shalev, "Ancient Masks, American Fathers: Classical Pseudonyms During the American Revolution and Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic 23, no. 2 (2003): 172.return to text

    9. Women wrote on a range of subjects, though most frequently wrote for the good of humanity. Although they were active members and leaders of charitable societies, their letters to the Journal de Paris tended to take a more personal form. Most frequently, they shared personal experiences as a way of informing the public and bettering their fellow readers. Women signed very few published letters, but comparing letters signed by women with a number of the unsigned letters reveals similarities in tone, style, and content. Furthermore, it seems likely that women were among those who asked that their names not be printed for the sake of propriety.return to text

    10. Robert Darnton, "The Facts of Literary Life in Eighteenth Century France," in Keith Michael Baker, Colin Lucas, François Furet, and Mona Ozouf, eds. The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture (New York: Pergamon Press, 1987), 261-91.return to text

    11. Journal de Paris, 27 February 1789, letter 1. return to text

    12. Ibid., 14 February 1789, letter 1.return to text

    13. Ibid., 23 February 1789, letter 2.return to text

    14. Ibid., 6 May 1789, letter 1.return to text

    15. G. Charles Walton, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), especially the introduction. return to text

    16. Ibid., 25 January 1789, letter 2. return to text

    17. Ibid., 23 April 1789, letter 3.return to text

    18. Ibid., 23 March 1787, letter 1.return to text

    19. Ibid., 2 June 1789, letter 2.return to text

    20. Ibid., 8 October 1787, letter 1.return to text

    21. Ibid., 16 January 1789, letter 1.return to text

    22. Ibid., 14 July 1787, letter 1.return to text

    23. Thirty-nine letters fit within the bienfaisance category of the Journal, and an additional seven letters under other headings dealt with philanthropic undertakings. Bienfaisance may be categorized as a more secular, philanthropic act intended to meet the needs of the local community. The letters relating acts of bienfaisance do not speak about these acts of charity in terms of religious motivations. return to text

    24. Ibid., 13 January 1789, letter 1.return to text

    25. Ibid., 9 July 1789, letter 3.return to text

    26. Ibid., 1 February 1789, letter 1.return to text

    27. Ibid., 17 January 1789, letter 3.return to text

    28. Gilles Feyel's study of the Old Regime press has likewise emphasized the critical nature of the French readership on the eve of the Revolution. Gilles Feyel, L'annonce et la nouvelle: La presse d'information en France sous l'Ancien Régime (1630–1788) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1286-89.return to text