The French Revolution and Napoleon Collection at FSU

By Richard J. Siegler III

The Special Collections at Florida State University’s Robert M. Strozier Library in Tallahassee, Florida contains one of the largest repositories of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic documents in the world. The collection first began under the auspices of Dr. Donald Horward in 1961 with roughly 250 volumes, but the collection has grown tremendously in the last fifty years to include over 20,000 rare manuscripts, pamphlets, newspapers, diaries, books, and even some artifacts, including a copy of Napoleon’s death mask (see the title image above). The collection offers researchers an opportunity for significant archival research on the period from 1789 to 1815 within the United States.  The graduate students studying French Revolutionary and Napoleonic topics in the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution (INFR) at Florida State University benefit greatly from the collections, but too often scholars in the field are unaware of the collection’s offerings.

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Rather than try to capture the entire scope of the collection, I hope that this piece will serve as an introduction to the kinds of material available to researchers and the subjects or areas of research for which the collection might be used.  While its name suggests an exclusive focus on the French Revolution and Napoleonic period, the collection actually encompasses over a thousand titles concerning the Old Regime and the Enlightenment.  On the other chronological end, the collection includes material from the Bourbon Restoration and the Second Empire.  The inclusion of such materials is valuable for researchers questioning periodization and tracing trends in the longue durée.

It is with the events surrounding the fiscal crisis of the French monarchy and the calling of the Estates General that the collection really begins to demonstrate its breadth.  Aside from an assortment of printed copies of the cahiers de doléances, a 278-volume set of the Bulletin des lois de la République, de l’Empire, du Royaume de France, and an original edition of Jacques Necker’s De l’administration des finances de la France, the collection contains an extensive selection of period memoirs, diaries, and personal correspondence.  One of the highlights of this material is the French Revolution collection on Camille Desmoulins, Lucile Duplessis, and General Arthur Dillon, which includes Duplessis’s Cahier rouge, several letters between Dillon and Desmoulins from 1793, and a series of unbound pamphlets of Desmoulins’s literary endeavors. On the whole, these sources provide tremendous insight into the lives of those who experienced the revolutionary transformations of the 1790s and the Napoleonic state.

The collection is particularly strong in the socio-political, cultural, and military history of this period. For instance, the 28-volume set of the Grands notables du Premier Empire, notices de biographie sociale, provides a rich source base for understanding the social, economic, and political characteristics of the Napoleonic local elite.  Other valuable sources for the socio-political context of this period can be found among the tomes dealing with the history of Paris.  Of particular importance are the papers of the sections of Paris (1790-an IV), and the reports of the officers of the Chatelet on some of the major affairs of the Revolution. 

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Yet the real gem at the center of this collection remains the significant collection of period newspapers, in French and English, from 1789 to 1815.  In total, the French Revolution and Napoleon collection contains 116 different periodicals.  Some of these only lasted for a short period of time during the early years of the Revolution, but many of them include dozens or hundreds of issues such as L’Ami du peuple, the Courrier patriotique, Journal de Paris, Journal des départements méridionaux, Le Patriote français, and Le publicist de la République française. In addition, the French Revolution and Napoleon collection houses the full run of The Times, the Journal des débats et des décrets, and the Gazette nationale ou Le Moniteur universel—the official journal of the French state under Napoleon.  Together, these newspapers provide a paper trail for tracing the shifts in political and print culture of this period.

Moreover, sources concerning Napoleon abound, including his entire printed correspondence. Two of the unique collections preserved at Florida State are the records of the Bibliothèque de Napoleon and the papers of General Jean-Jacques-Germain Pelet-Clozeau. The records of the Bibliothèque de Napoleon consist of letters and official documents from the staff of Napoleon’s personal library. They provide an interesting glimpse into how a sovereign head of state might organize his personal repository of knowledge and received wisdom. It also demonstrates how Napoleon, often traversing the battlefields of Europe, instructed his librarians to create and manage a traveling library. While the priceless artifacts, artwork, and war trophies taken to Paris in victory have received attention, this collection offers an opportunity to look at what books made their way into Napoleon’s library.

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The Pelet Papers, on the other hand, span from the early years of the French Republic to the Second Empire.  These papers are an extremely valuable source for understanding the inner workings and culture of the Grande Armée.  Not only does the collection contain a series of hand-drawn maps and notes detailing Pelet’s early years as an army engineer, but it consists, too, of correspondence from Napoleon to Marshals Berthier and Davout (1805-1810). Also included are extensive post-1815 interviews with many distinguished members of the Empire’s social and military elite. Other important document collections include a large portion of the library once belonging to the King of Hanover from which one could study the Napoleonic German states as well as correspondence between Pius VII and the Napoleonic state over the invasion of Rome and his captivity.  Ultimately, the varied source material for the Napoleonic period would provide a fruitful base for anyone interested in the socio-political context and military culture of the First Empire.

Located in Florida’s capital, the French Revolution and Napoleon Collection provides an opportunity for graduate students, faculty, and independent scholars to do extensive preparatory research in the United States before traveling to archives in Europe.  Not only does the collection boast several thousand reference volumes and bibliographic works, many of which are long out of print, but it also includes bound copies of the departmental inventories in France.  And for those who might not be able to visit Tallahassee, the staff of Special Collections has begun the process of digitizing parts of the collection

Richard J. Siegler III is a doctoral student at Florida State University in the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution. You can contact him at rsiegler@fsu.edu or tweet him @Richard_Siegler.

Title image: Photograph of Napoleon’s death mask, credit to FSU Strozier Library staff.

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