The French Revolution profoundly influenced many of the ideas and institutions that created the modern world. This far-reaching revolutionary upheaval drew widely on eighteenth-century Enlightenment culture to construct and spread modern ideas about human rights, republicanism, legal equality, nationalism, and the value of scientific knowledge. At the same time, France's revolutionary leaders began to create new institutions that France and other modern countries would use to develop large state bureaucracies, mass conscription armies, centralized monetary and taxation systems, nationwide legal codes and police surveillance, carefully orchestrated public rituals, and new plans for public education.
Although historians continue to debate the French Revolution's enduring intellectual and institutional influence on the transitions to modernity in the North Atlantic world, they increasingly recognize its significance for another major aspect of modern world history: the displacement and exile of people whose everyday lives, work, and personal relationships are radically transformed during revolutions, civil wars, and transnational warfare. Among its many other contributions to the emergence of modern social and political life, the revolutionary upheaval generated a complex, multifaceted human displacement that is the subject of this Forum on “Émigrés and Migration during the French Revolution.” Each of the well-researched articles in this thematic collection provides new information and perspectives to show how this social-political-religious migration became a major component of the French Revolution's long-term legacy and an early example of refugee experiences that have continually reappeared in later centuries.
The people who left France during this revolutionary conflict were called émigrés, but their life histories resembled what is now called the “flight of refugees.” The word “refugee” had entered the English language at the end of the seventeenth century when French Protestants fled to England and other countries to seek “refuge” from the anti-Huguenot persecution that followed King Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.1 There was also a long history of European réfugiés before the word was used in modern languages, mainly because members of almost every religious community had been forced to flee at various times from government or mob violence against Christian heretics, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants. The political and religious émigrés who left France after 1789 were therefore swept into emigration experiences that were by no means new in this period, but they were also the vanguard for an expanding modern displacement of vulnerable people that has been part of every war and revolution over the last two hundred years.
Historians estimate that approximately 150,000 French émigrés moved to other countries during the 1790s. The uncertainties of foreign migration therefore became a decisive life experience for about 0.5 percent of the 28 million people then living in France, though many other displaced people also traveled to unfamiliar places without leaving French territory. Historical studies of this era of emigration, however, usually focus on those who left the country, and this Forum follows historiographical traditions by only examining transnational migration. To place this revolutionary emigration in a comparative framework, it might be noted that about 200,000 Huguenots fled from France after 1685; and the United Nations Refugee Agency estimated that wars, civil strife, and other crises forced more than 89 million people to live as displaced persons and refugees at the end of 2021, when the global population had reached almost eight billion people. Millions of new refugees joined these migratory streams after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, perhaps raising overall displacements to almost 100 million in that year. Precise numbers can never be known, of course, but roughly 1 percent of the world's current population might be categorized as refugees or internally displaced persons.2 Although migrations and displacements constantly evolve, the daily challenges of émigré/refugee life show remarkable economic, social, and cultural continuities. Exiles in every generation become separated from former identities, social status, and livelihoods, and nobody knows when or how they will ultimately find a less precarious social position.
The following articles explore specific problems that French émigrés faced in northern European port cities, in smaller towns on the English island of Jersey, and in larger cities within Great Britain, but the émigré stories from the 1790s also exemplified the struggles and resilience that have characterized exile life in every subsequent refugee migration. These stories remind us that great public events always alter and disrupt private lives, though people inevitably continue the daily search for food, shelter, jobs, friendships, and love amid the famous upheavals that dominate national memories and history textbooks.
Displaced persons struggle with the disorientation of lost identities, the urgent search for money or jobs, the limited assistance or deepening hostility of host-country populations, and the ongoing need for humanitarian assistance. Janet Polasky, Sydney Watts, and Kirsty Carpenter examine all these layers of refugee life in their accounts of how émigrés survived in the ambiguous social and political condition that Watts calls “refugeedom.” She draws this word from an essay by the English historian Peter Gatrell and uses the term (like Gatrell) to discuss the émigrés’ creative adaptations to their “in-between” social spaces, which other historians have described as cultural or geographical “borderlands.” The French Revolution pushed thousands of people into these hybrid places on the social margins of foreign countries, where émigrés landed in the 1790s and where countless other exiles have struggled to reconstruct their lives since that era.3 Emphasizing the wide-ranging experiential dimensions of the French Revolution's human displacements, the authors in this Forum focus on the struggles of daily life rather than on anti-revolutionary political ideas or the theology of exiled priests.
The Émigrés’ Loss of Past Identities
Each article shows that émigré journeys into refugeedom affected every exile's previous French identity. Some older, popular, or politicized accounts of the Emigration have suggested that most émigrés were nobles or priests, but the new emigration history stresses the social and political diversity of those who went abroad. In addition to the aristocrats and clergymen, for example, Polasky finds that “merchants, entrepreneurs, philosophers, writers, artisans, [and] manual laborers” all traveled to the neutral port cities of Hamburg and Altona in search of safety and money. Carpenter finds similar diversity among the social classes who joined the French emigration in Britain, and Watts stresses that “the vast majority of those who departed [France] after 1790–91 were … commoners” who had worked at home as domestic servants, craftsmen, low-level military officers, sailors, or boat pilots.
The émigrés from all backgrounds, however, lost previous social identities and the social status of their past work and families. They could no longer explain their professional knowledge with their own language or easily affirm deeply held religious identities or reclaim the prestige that came from owning land, houses, and shops in France. Émigrés lost the identities and security they had once found in their money, their education, their churches, their professions, their friends, and their family relationships. Many émigrés also lost their marriages, either because spouses died in revolutionary violence or because women became separated from their husbands while they were transporting children and jewels across national borders.
The vulnerability of women thus emerges as a notable theme in all the following accounts of émigré communities. The social position of most eighteenth-century French women was linked to their marriages and their husbands, but these once-stable connections broke down when people moved far outside their hometown family networks. Emphasizing this new isolation, Carpenter explains how women became a “surprisingly invisible group” and how their economic constraints became “especially dire from the outset.” Gender identities therefore changed along with other layers of identity that depended on education, wealth, religion, language, age, or family histories. Men and women from every social rank faced (like other modern refugees) the disorienting loss of a home-country social status that was decentered and diminished in exile. As Carpenter rightly notes, the “civil identities” of émigrés became “dead within France,” and such identities could not be resurrected in foreign countries. This civic death haunted everyone who sought a new life in the alienating realm of refugeedom, but the loss of earlier identities carried its most immediate social effects in the daily quest for money, food, and housing.
The Economic Struggles and Resilience of Émigrés
Despite the generosity of strangers, most émigrés had to transform previous work skills into new kinds of economic activity. Polasky describes elite exiles in Altona and Hamburg who began to offer piano lessons, sell embroidery, or work in wine shops. Once-prominent French ladies found themselves assisting tobacco merchants or opening delicatessens. The need for money reshaped the activities and lives of almost all émigrés, including an impoverished woman whose lonely death in London provoked what Carpenter calls a “spontaneous” British campaign to help the poorest French exiles stay alive. Motivated by stories of émigré women who fell into “the last stages of consumption” or left “malnourished little boys” when they died, English women organized charitable collections to help vulnerable mothers feed their children; and financial desperation became another example of how this French migration pointed toward the later realities of all refugee displacements.
Yet the following essays also emphasize the resilience of émigrés who developed innovative strategies to support their families in alien social conditions. Drawing on registries of émigré workers in Jersey and on advertisements in local newspapers, Watts shows that French exiles frequently found new work as masons, carpenters, seamstresses, cooks, and teachers of music or languages. Polasky uses other sources to describe exiles who joined with local merchants in Hamburg and with other traders from England and America to expand a seaborne trade of luxury goods, so that “it was said [by 1798] that everything sought in Paris could be found in Hamburg, if only on a smaller scale.” There may have been fewer “success stories” among the impoverished émigrés in England, but Carpenter explains how French leaders and clergymen used entrepreneurial methods to collect charitable funds for their destitute compatriots. Émigré life can be portrayed as an experience of inescapable “victimhood,” but the authors in this Forum show how displaced people regained some control over their lives. They used old and new skills for survival in refugeedom, where interactions with foreign people created both limits and opportunities for the lives of French exiles. Refugees in the 1790s, like those fleeing all modern conflicts, lived among foreigners who simultaneously accepted and resented them as needy outsiders.
Foreign Interactions with French Émigrés
Émigrés encountered a wide range of responses in the German and English cities that are discussed in this Forum. Polasky notes, for example, that local people in the northern port cities initially respected the rights of strangers and “kept their doors open to all threatened by the uncertainty of revolution and its aftermath.” A similar welcoming attitude appeared in Jersey, as Watts notes in her discussion of people who “provided room and board to refugees” in the island's small towns and boarding houses. The anti-revolutionary upper classes in England overcame their historic distrust of French Catholicism to assist successive waves of émigrés, and Carpenter explains how wealthy English donors created private charity committees that conveyed a self-flattering nationalist narrative about the “compassionate qualities” of the British people and their “tolerant and generous nation.”
The French emigration of the 1790s thus contributed to new nationalist narratives because communities in host nations (then as now) could portray themselves as good people who helped needy persons fleeing from danger. In return for their national charity, however, other countries benefited from the arrival of émigrés whose labor and skills contributed to local economic activity. Polasky's account of Hamburg and Altona stresses that new arrivals boosted international trade as well as the income of urban shopkeepers because the “economic interests of the merchants and aristocrats converged in consumption.” Businesses in Jersey also expanded with the assistance of émigrés whose talents helped to double the size of the largest town (Saint Helier) during the revolutionary decade. Émigrés thus added to local economies, even when their presence aroused suspicion and fears.
Fear of French émigrés became increasingly significant as the number of exiles continued to grow after 1792. Differences in religion, language, and social customs reinforced older anti-French prejudices, but there were also mounting fears that Jacobin spies were flowing into the emigrant stream. In early 1793, the British government passed a restrictive “Aliens Act” that required all arriving French émigrés to register when they arrived in the country, forced the surrender of any arms they might be carrying, limited where they could live, and allowed police searches of their lodgings. Anticipating the modern fear of terrorists who are said to embed themselves among fleeing refugees, the British developed what Carpenter calls a “spy-conscious” national fear of secret French agents, which Watts finds also in reports on French military prisoners who escaped British control in Jersey. Meanwhile, the once-welcoming bourgeois residents of Altona and Hamburg came to distrust and dislike French aristocrats. As Polasky summarizes the transition, good burghers in the northern port cities increasingly found the elite French émigrés to be “presumptuous” and “luxury-loving” people who afflicted their city like a plague by rejecting traditional moral values. French social elites could thus be as threatening to people in non-French cities as the poorest exiles, but it was the émigré poverty that elicited new humanitarian campaigns and led to new kinds of private and governmental interventions which still assist refugees today.
French Émigrés and the Emergence of Modern Humanitarianism
The flight of people escaping from revolutionary conflicts and wars has become one of the most common aspects of modern global history, so the French émigrés were some of the first beneficiaries of recurring modern campaigns for humanitarian assistance. All of the articles in this Forum note local charitable efforts to help the French people who arrived without resources in foreign cities, but Kirsty Carpenter's article gives particular attention to the significance of the new humanitarian relief campaigns in Britain. Wealthy people first responded to the distressed Catholic clergy with a new charitable committee that raised money for impoverished French priests, but generous donors soon created another committee to support the more numerous non-clerical émigrés. The leaders of these charitable groups, as Carpenter describes them, included “the most influential and respected members of the British aristocracy,” which meant that giving to refugees also became a way to show one's membership in a philanthropic elite. Supporting humanitarian relief enabled donors to link their social status to moral public behavior—a pattern of upper-class philanthropy that has continued down to our own time.
Equally important, however, the suffering of French émigrés came to be viewed as a public issue that required official government intervention. The other strand of modern refugee support therefore developed when the British government began giving public money to the private committees that distributed funds to poor émigrés. Implementing a new bureaucratic structure for such charity, the government defined how people of different ages and genders would receive specific allocations and then set strict monetary limits for the monthly payments. The government relief never provided fully adequate support, but Carpenter notes that roughly 15,000 French émigrés were receiving monthly payments from the British government by the mid-1790s. She also argues more broadly that the lasting historical significance of this public and private relief can be seen in the private, governmental, and international assistance for refugees during and after all modern wars. Indeed, Carpenter believes the “citizens in Poland reacted in much the same way to Ukrainian refugees in 2022 as the inhabitants of … England did to the émigrés in 1792” because both the Poles and the English provided food, shelter, and the human comfort that refugees have always needed. Humanitarian responses to the French Revolution, in short, helped to launch the modern history of systematic charitable support.
French Émigrés and the Paradox of Modern Citizenship
The early modernity of the French émigrés’ lost identities, economic hardships, transnational exchanges, and relations with humanitarian projects points finally to a paradoxical legacy of the French Revolution that still affects refugees in the twenty-first century. The Revolution established the abstract concept of equal citizenship rights, thereby replacing an old regime legal system in which legal rights depended on a person's birth or position in a social estate. The legal equality of national citizenship was thus one of the great “progressive” principles of the Revolution, and it would be used later to extend equal citizenship rights to previously excluded lower-class men, to women, and to racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. The establishment of legally equal citizenship rights, however, made refugees ever more vulnerable as they crossed national boundaries because basic rights and benefits became increasingly connected to the essential, pre-existing status of national citizenship.
Current struggles for the rights of displaced people and stateless refugees have therefore developed as another distant legacy of the French Revolution. If the great political and legal issue in 1789 was to establish equal citizenship rights for all people within a national community, the great political and legal issue of our own time may well be the quest to establish equal human rights for the millions of stateless people or persons “without papers” who live in refugeedom. Living in this social and political borderland, migrants and refugees have few or no legal claims to voting rights, health care, education, or equal standing in state court systems. Although the history of French émigrés in the 1790s does not offer clear guidance for solving the current problems of stateless people in hybrid borderlands, the articles in this Forum help us understand how past exiles and host countries responded creatively to this ambiguous, in-between social position during the era when citizenship gained its modern meanings. Émigré experiences in the era of the French Revolution thus connect with the search for survival and rights among stateless people today, and the following articles suggest why the history of both citizenship and exile must be constantly reexamined and expanded.
This Forum began in a session at the annual meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies, which was scheduled to take place in Auckland, New Zealand, in July 2020. When the Covid-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the in-person meeting, the conference went forward as a virtual gathering that connected people across multiple continents and islands. I thank Janet Polasky, Sydney Watts, and Kirsty Carpenter for their participation in the Auckland conference and for their careful work on papers that evolved into articles for this Forum; and I appreciate Brian Newsome's excellent editorial guidance as we expanded a lively Zoom conversation into a wider analysis of émigrés and exile life during the French Revolution.
The significance of the earlier French Huguenot emigration has been explored in several excellent works, including books by Geoffrey Treasure, The Huguenots (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) and Carolyn Chappell Lougee, Facing the Revocation: Huguenot Families, Faith, and the King's Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). For a concise historical account of the word “refugee,” see Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2022), s.v. “The Origin of Refugee,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/origin-and-meaning-of-refugee (accessed 10 August 2022).
The overall numbers for the French emigration come from the classic, detailed study by Donald Greer, which provided a department-by-department list of 129,099 officially identified émigrés; but Greer assumed that at least 20,000 other people fled from France without identification on government lists. See Donald Greer, The Incidence of the Emigration during the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951), 20, 109–138. Numbers for the Huguenot emigration are drawn from Treasure, The Huguenots, 374, where the author notes that about one-fifth of all Protestant refugees (40,000) went to England. Reports on currently displaced persons (which I have used here) are regularly updated on the website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Global Trends,” https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends (accessed 10 August 2022).
Watts refers to the interesting themes in Peter Gatrell, “Refugees: What's Wrong with History?” Journal of Refugee Studies 30, no. 2 (2016): 170–189,