Knowledge Elites and Modernization: Evidence from Revolutionary France

Mara P. Squicciarini, Nico Voigtländer

NBER Working Paper No. 22779
Issued in October 2016
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Political Economy

This paper examines the role of knowledge elites in modernization. At the eve of the French Revolution, in the spring of 1789, King Louis XVI solicited lists of grievances (Cahiers de Doléances), in which the public could express complaints and suggestions for reforms of the Ancien Regime. We show that the demand for mass education and democratization was particularly high in regions that had a thick knowledge elite, measured by subscribers to the famous Encyclopédie in the 1770s. Historical evidence suggests that this pattern is driven by the spirit of enlightenment of French knowledge elites. Pre-revolution literacy, in contrast, is not correlated with demand for mass education or with the density of knowledge elites. After the French Revolution, knowledge elites played a key role in implementing schooling reforms at the local level. We show that by the mid-19th century, schooling rates were significantly higher in regions with thicker knowledge elites. The same is true of other proxies for modernization, such as association membership, Republican votes, and the share of French-speaking pupils. Our results highlight an important interaction between local culture (the spirit of enlightenment) and nation-wide institutions in economic development: the French Revolution opened a window of opportunity for local elites to pursue their agenda of modernization.

download in pdf format
   (246 K)

email paper

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22779

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Ikegami, Carter, Barrett, and Janzen w22714 Poverty Traps and the Social Protection Paradox
Fang, Lerner, and Wu w22685 Intellectual Property Rights Protection, Ownership, and Innovation: Evidence from China
Bombardini and Li w22804 Trade, Pollution and Mortality in China
Banerjee, Duflo, Imbert, Mathew, and Pande w22803 E-governance, Accountability, and Leakage in Public Programs: Experimental Evidence from a Financial Management Reform in India
Carvalho and Dippel w22777 Elite Identity and Political Accountability: A Tale of Ten Islands
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us