The French statesman and historian François Pierre Guillaume Guizot (1787-1874) was a cold and clever politician whose refusal to grant electoral reforms precipitated the February Revolution of 1848. His scholarly publications, however, have been widely praised.
Though born at Nîmes on Oct. 4, 1787, François Guizot was educated in Geneva, where his mother had emigrated after his father's execution in 1794. Returning to Paris in 1805, Guizot studied law but soon forsook it for a literary career. The publication of a critical edition of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire established his reputation as a historian and secured his appointment (1812) to the chair of modern history in the University of Paris. There he became a disciple of the moderate royalist philosopher Pierre Paul Royer-Collard.
Guizot took no active part in politics under the Empire, but during the first Bourbon restoration he held the post of secretary general of the Ministry of the Interior. After the Hundred Days he twice held office:secretary general of the Ministry of Justice (1815-1816) and director in the Ministry of the Interior (1819-1820). But the assassination of the Duke of Berry in February 1820 produced a reactionary backlash that swept Guizot and the moderates from office.
Out of office for most of the next decade, Guizot concentrated on historical research and writing. From his productive pen came the History of the Origin of Representative Government (2 vols., 1821-1822); History of the English Revolution from Charles I to Charles II (2 vols., 1826-1827); General History of Civilization in Europe (3 vols., 1828); and Histoire de la civilisation en France (4 vols., 1830). Guizot's histories have been justly praised for their excellent scholarship, lucid and succinct style, judicious analysis, and impartiality.
Returning to active politics in January 1830, Guizot entered the Chamber as a deputy for Lisieux and immediately joined the opposition to the Polignac ministry. Since 1815 Guizot had shared with Royer-Collard the leadership of the Doctrinaires, who considered the Charter of 1814 the epitome of political wisdom since it established a balance between the power of the Crown, the nobility, and the upper middle classes. As right-wing liberals, they supported the restoration monarchy so long as it governed according to the Charter, but when Charles X attempted to rule by decree, they turned from the Bourbon to the Orleanist dynasty. During the July Revolution of 1830, they helped to elevate Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, to the throne.
In August 1830 Guizot became minister of the interior. For the next 2 years he gradually became more conservative as a series of Paris disorders instilled in him a fear of anarchy. But his conservatism had deeper roots. A devout Calvinist, he identified the sanctified elect with the political elite, who, he believed, had a divine mission to govern the masses.
By October 1832, when he became minister of public instruction, Guizot had assumed leadership of the right-center. His one great legislative act was the law of June 28, 1833—the charter of France's elementary school system— which required every commune to maintain a public primary school. Always the champion of the academic community, he reestablished the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, which Napoleon had suppressed, founded the Société de l'Histoire de France, and published at state expense huge collections of medieval documents and diplomatic dispatches.
In February 1840 Guizot went to London as ambassador, but in October he became foreign minister and the dominant personality in the Soult ministry. The tenets of his foreign policy were nonintervention, friendship with Britain, and cooperation with Austria. In 1847 Guizot became premier. But overthrown by the February Revolution of 1848, he went into exile in England. After a year in London, devoted primarily to research in the British archives, he retired to his estate at Val Richer near Lisieux in Normandy.
Though Guizot survived the Orleanist monarchy by 26 years, he never reentered the political arena but focused his energy on academic activities and writing historical works. Between 1854 and his death on Sept. 12, 1874, he published the Histoire de la république d'Angleterre et de Cromwell (2 vols., 1854); Histoire du protectorat de Cromwell et du rétablissement des Stuarts (2 vols., 1856); Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de mon temps (9 vols., 1858-1868); and the Histoire parlementaire de la France (5 vols., 1863), which included his speeches.
Further Reading on François Pierre Guillaume Guizot
The best biography of Guizot in English is Douglas Johnson, Guizot:Aspects of French History—1787-1874 (1963). Though mindful of the statesman's faults, Johnson attempts to rehabilitate him by emphasizing his "sound intellect" and "historical consciousness" and by showing that his foreign policy was "always reasonable and usually realistic." Elizabeth Parnham Brush, Guizot in the Early Years of the Orleanist Monarchy (1929), is an excellent special study. A good general account of Guizot's political career is J. Lucas-Dubreton, The Restoration and the July Monarchy (trans. 1929), which also analyzes the social and intellectual currents of the period.