Evolving Identities and the Nation-State

Should nation be the foundation of identity?

On July 14, 1789, a Paris crowd attacked the fortress of Bastille prison looking for weapons to defend themselves against the King’s soldiers and to free people rumoured to be wrongfully imprisoned. This revolt targeted the prison as it represented a symbol of the King's authority. As you will learn in Unit 2, the French Revolution highlights the ways individual identities evolve with the concept of nationalism.

In Unit 1, you learned about nationalism and its effects on identity, nation, and the nation-state. But, the nationalism you explored in Unit 1 did not always exist the way it does today. Nationalism only had a minor role in European affairs before the eighteenth century (1700s) because of absolute monarchs. The belief of one person ruling over all citizens was reinforced by the belief in the divine right of kings (it is God's will behind the monarchy) unrestricted by law or custom, and where a nation's citizens usually had no say over their government. The crown (right), a symbol of the monarchy, is topped with a tiny cross (a symbol of God and the Catholic faith).

Nationalism eventually became a powerful force throughout the 1800s. So, where and when did the concepts of nation, national identity, nation-state, and nationalism evolve? How did modern nationalism begin? We will begin Unit 2 by focusing on the French Revolution and the development of nationalism in France.
Louis XIV (14th), King of France from 1643 to 1715, is said to have once announced, "I am the state". In other words, as the absolute monarch, Louis XIV was France. Without the king, there was no country of France. His wish was absolute law, and the people of France existed only to be his subjects. During this time, the French people owed their loyalty to the king and had no say in government decision-making. The identity of the French people and the country of France came from the king. Other European countries had similar situations as well. Non-nationalist loyalties were far stronger than nationalist loyalties during this time period. There was no concept of nation as we know it today.

But, by 1789, revolutionary changes in French society were taking place. After the end of the absolute monarchy, the newly elected National Assembly of France issued The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This document made revolutionary statements such as the following.

  • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights (all French citizens are equal to each other and have the same rights as everyone else, including the king).

  • The source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation (a country's people, and not the king control the nation).

This was quite a change from the French people finding their sole reason for existence in a French monarch! They were becoming a nation-state ruled by themselves. So, how and why were the citizens of France developing nationalism?


Tip: Throughout the course, you will be asked to reflect on certain questions or issues. While the “Reflect” sections are not part of your course mark, they help you initially consider your own perspectives and ideas prior to going through the unit. When you encounter the "Reflect" sections, brainstorm your own perspectives and ideas, and record these impressions in your notes. Review the tutorial How to Take Notes to help you clarify notetaking methods for Social Studies 20-2.

Read page 42 in the Understanding Nationalism textbook, then respond to the Reflect section that follows.

Go to your textbook, Understanding Nationalism, and read page 42. This page will further your understanding of the situation in France before the Revolution.

In many countries, citizens vote representatives into government, which can create a sense of belonging and influence in the direction of their nation. If you were a citizen living in an absolute monarchy, what challenges would you face in feeling connected to your nation?

All Overview pages in Social 20-2 have a Checklist (at the top of the Overview page) that specifies the assignments, quizzes, and forums students must complete. Download the Unit 2 Checklist to keep track of your progress before moving onto the next page.