Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Dr. Dale H. Porter

Second Advisor

Dr. Judith F. Stone

Third Advisor

Dr. Jena M. Gaines

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Open Access


This research examines the rhetoric of belle epoque English and French middle class social observers. Addressing the "social question," they engaged in a debate on how best to appease an impoverished, alienated, and increasingly militant working class. Historians cite this discourse, and the meager legislation it fostered, as a transition from the unbridled nineteenth century laissez-faire to the welfare democracy characteristic of the twentieth century.

Central to the "social question" was the issue of improving social relations without altering existing class hierarchies (which favored the middle classes). Many social commentators shunned the passage of legislative safety nets in favor of private philanthropy and education. The working class, they assumed, simply needed to behave more "providently"-in other words, more like the respectable middle class.

In short, perusal of the sources on the "social question" highlights pervasive attitudes toward poverty and toward the poor, such as the notion that poor workers were at fault for their poverty because they lacked economic foresight. Though addressing rhetoric rather than politics, this conclusion clarifies that the "transition" to post-war welfare democracy was not as smooth as historians have assumed.

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