Publication Date

May 12, 2016

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Historian of France

David Duckworth Bien. Courtesy Matthew BienThe historical profession in North America and western Europe regrets thepassing of David Duckworth Bien, who died at age 85 on September 25, 2015, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, after a long illness. Born and raised in Baltimore, Bien earned his bachelor’s degree at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, graduating as valedictorian—and lacrosse star—in 1951. At Washington and Lee, he found his wife and companion, Margaret (Peggy) Jane Clark, as well as his professional vocation in the study of history. The first took him back to Baltimore, where he married Peggy; the second to Harvard University, where he received his PhD in 1958 under the direction of the eminent French historian Crane Brinton. His dissertation became a book, The Calas Affair: Persecution, Toleration, and Heresy in 18th-Century Toulouse(Princeton Univ. Press, 1960), and took him to Princeton University as an associate professor of history in 1959. In 1967, the prospect of a more tailored schedule and exchanging ideas with Lionel Rothkrug took him to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he remained until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1996.

At Princeton, Bien left the study of the interplay between 18th-century French Catholicism and the Enlightenment—the subject of his first book—for a career-long inquiry into social mobility into the French nobility and the rise of professionalism within it. This work influenced the revision of the Marxian analysis of the origins of the French Revolution then underway. Bien’s paradigm-changing essay of 1974, “La réaction aristocratique: l’exemple de l’armée,” published in successive installments of the Annales: E.S.C. (and republished in English as Caste, Class, and Profession in the Ancien Régime in 2010), showed that the Ségur Law of 1781 (which required new French army officers to prove they had a noble lineage of four generations) did not diminish the low rate of commoners entering that corps, nor was it intended to; rather, the law was aimed at excluding newly ennobled purchasers of royal offices.

Having thus undermined the still-influential neo-Marxian thesis that an “aristocratic reaction” against commoners was an important factor in the coming of the Revolution, Bien extended his research to the French Old Regime’s privileged corps. As he showed, the monarchy used the sale of ennobling offices within these apparently archaic corps for the quite modern purpose of borrowing indirectly from the public at advantageous rates. For the nobility, increasing social mobility into its ranks meant that aristocratic status grew less meaningful, prompting the quest for professional competencies to replace that status. For commoners, the new emphasis on professional competence ironically increased feelings of exclusion from professions to which their capacities entitled them. And for the monarchy, selling noble privilege for fiscal purposes—without seeking national consent to increases in taxation—made it all but impossible to undertake reform against fiscal privilege, even when royal ministers influenced by enlightened economic thought fitfully tried to do so.

The French Enlightenment never ceased to shape Bien’s methodological toolkit. Just as in The Calas Affair, he demonstrated that the steady advance in “enlightened” religious toleration suffered only a momentary, war-related reversal in 1762, when Toulouse’s Catholic magistrates found a Protestant textile merchant by that name guilty of murder in a case about what was probably the suicidal death of his son; so he similarly argued in his later work that military reformers’ Lockean conviction of the environmental origin of all human differences undergirded their belief that “talent” lay in the privileged upbringing of the old military rather than among nobility who had recently purchased their titles. For Bien, the effect of the Enlightenment was to modernize, even to exacerbate, a debate about social equality and access to public offices that would end in a revolution: the monarchy’s own creation of and stake in corporate fiscal privilege made reform difficult.

The most provocative of Bien’s arguments reversed Tocqueville’s thesis about the Revolution, which situated the drive for social equality against the Old Regime’s corps. Combining his interest in enlightened equality with his discovery of the functional newness of many of the Old Regime’s seemingly neo-feudal corps, Bien found equality within these corps. Unequally positioned against each other though they were, each also had to abide by majorities of equal votes by its members in order to stand by the debts it collectively incurred. Bien’s work hence shed light not only on the origins but also on the subsequent course of a revolution in which, as Tocqueville observed, the quest for equality got the better of democratic freedom for want of intersocial fraternity. Many of the essays that figure in this phase of Bien’s oeuvre have recently been republished in Interpreting the Old Regime (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).

A “historian’s historian,” as Patrice Higonnet called him, Bien never left any archival stone unturned in the always elegant composition of his field-defining essays, two of which won the Koren Prize. As a professional colleague, he was generous to a fault with his time and advice. As a graduate adviser, he produced as many distinguished historians as did Carl Becker or Crane Brinton. As member and chair of his department at the University of Michigan, “Saint David,” as he was affectionately known, helped establish a professorial exchange with the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, which greatly enhanced the reception of American scholarship in France. He is mourned by his wife and four children, Clark David, Matthew William, Ellen Jane Karpiuk, and Alexander John, and by all his students and colleagues.

Ohio State University

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