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In 1826 he joined the staff of the Journal des Débats, but subsequently transferred his pen to the National. Under the empire he was inspector-general of education (1852) and director of the École normal (1857–1867).
His literary reputation was effectually established by his Histoire de la littérature française (1844–1861), which secured his election to the Academy (1850). His other works include Études d'histoire et de littérature (1859–1864), and Les Quatres grands historiens latins (1875).
In all his books Nisard vigorously supported the claims of classicism against romanticism. He is the object of the loathing of the narrator in the postmodern book Démolir Nisard, by the French writer Eric Chevillard. He died at San Remo in 1888.