B.A. University of South Alabama, 2009
M.A. (French) The Ohio State University, 2011
M.A. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013
PhD University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2020
My work focuses on the intellectual history and political culture of early modern France and the French colonial empire. My dissertation and current book project, “The Struggle for the General Will and the Making of the French and Haitian Revolutions,” examines competing ideas of the People’s “general will” in the emergence of proto-democratic political cultures and in the origins and trajectory of the Revolution. I have also written about Franco-Indigenous relationships in French colonial Louisiana and Polynesia. My intended second book project will examine contested definitions of who was or could be “French” in French colonial North America and will explore Old Regime origins of the purportedly post-Revolutionary colonial civilizing mission.
More about my dissertation and book project, “The Struggle for the General Will and the Making of the French and Haitian Revolutions”:
This dissertation examines the rapid emergence of a near-consensus in French politics that all political authority derived from the “general will” of the French People. Whereas popular sovereignty, which forms the justification of all modern democracies, has usually been understood as a principal legacy of the revolutionary era, this dissertation argues that this belief in the People’s sovereignty was a cause of the French Revolution, not an outcome. The Revolution formalized and codified the transformation in French political culture that had already taken place between the 1750s and 1789.
Historians have long debated whether French revolutionaries’ decisions were shaped more by unforeseen events and circumstances or by preexisting values and ideas. This dissertation’s original contribution is to provide a new understanding of how ideas and values shaped revolutionaries’ choices by providing a new understanding of those values. This study analyzes the overlapping, interdependent theories of the “general will” that emerged in mid-18th-century France, demonstrates how these ideas created a “general will discourse” that pervaded late Old Regime politics and replaced traditional beliefs about the monarchy, and demonstrates how that general will discourse created the Revolution’s political culture and shaped factional alignments both within and beyond the national government.
Much of the “ideas vs. circumstances” debate has depended on historians’ reading of revolutionaries’ discussions of the general will as expressions of Rousseau’s version of the idea. This dissertation argues that Rousseau’s was only one variant of the general will within a constellation of competing beliefs that created a shared framework for debate. Royalists and republicans alike argued for forms of government premised on popular sovereignty; the irreconcilable differences between them derived from their conflicting definitions of “the People” and conflicting judgments about who could interpret and represent the People’s will.
This debate also spread to struggles between white and black factions in the colonial Caribbean and contributed to the origins of the Haitian Revolution. This dissertation thus argues that these struggles to define and speak for the People’s general will dominated late Old Regime politics and created a central point of contention in both revolutionary France and its colonial empire.
- “Jansenism, Popular Sovereignty, and the General Will in the Prerevolutionary Crisis.” In Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, edited by Daniel J. Watkins and Mita Choudhury. Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation’s Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2019. Link.
- “The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Huguenot Diaspora: French Protestants and the Transnational Commodification of English Nationalism.” Book History, Vol. 21 (2018): 27-53. Link.