Elections in the French Revolution
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 7.3
Note: This section is a bit out of place, and may not belong in the final book. It corrects the common assumption that the French Revolution was about democracy.
The elected leaders of the French Revolution, like their American counterparts, were inspired by “natural rights” theory and consent. They also disdained democracy in favor of am aristocratic republic. Here I will give a brief overview of how this elite was initially elected and the election rules they drafted to elect future rulers.
Deep in debt from the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War, King Louis XVI called a gathering of representatives of the three estates (clergy, nobility, and the “commoners”) known as the Estates-General in May 1789 to propose a financial remedy and overcome opposition from the nobility to a proposed land tax. The model was the previous Estates-General, which had last been convened in 1614.
Elections were held in which any tax-paying males who were at least 35 years old could vote. The tax-paying requirement excluded the lower classes. It is not surprising that the monarchy favored election rather than the democratic process of sortition for selecting delegates. The elections occurred in a two-step process that magnified the effect of the aristocratic filter. The first round occurred at primary assemblies of the various guilds, occupational and trade associations, with residual representatives elected by eligible citizens who were not members of such organizations, at geographically-based assemblies. Those elected were not seen as free-wheeling representatives who should exercise independent judgment, but rather as directed delegates representing specific segments of society. The mandate for representation at play also had a commitment to “merit,” directing voters at these assemblies to:
“collectively communicate all the various demands, complaints and grievances, suggestions and advice which they wish to place before the Estates General. Having done this they should choose, elect and name as deputy any person who is worthy of this great mark of esteem, either as a result of their integrity or the good will with which they are imbued.” (quoted in Crook 1996)
Like elections of representatives in America at this time, which were also conducted at public meetings, some elections were conducted using paper ballots, and others by voice vote or show of hands. The concept of formal “nominations” did not yet exist; voters could vote for any eligible citizen they wished. A mere plurality vote for a candidate on the first round was not sufficient. Voting would be repeated up to three times in order to seek majority winners. Turnout was low, even among the restricted group of well-off “commoners” (meaning not noblemen) who were eligible to vote. Paris is estimated to have had 25 percent to 30 percent turnout, with many towns having far less participation.
The elected primary deputies then attended secondary regional meetings to elect the delegates who would attend the Estates-General. Those elected to represent the Third Estate were heavily weighted towards the wealthy and educated, typically lawyers and other members of the professional and business classes. This was the intended effect of the election process.
The aristocratic nature of elections (in which people would tend to elect their “betters”) was well understood. The highly influential Baron de Montesquieu in 1748 had written in The Spirit of Laws - Book II that elections were the appropriate tool for an aristocracy, while selection by lot was natural to democracy. This understanding — that elections were oligarchic and sortition democratic — was restated by Rousseau in The Social Contract - Book IV published in 1762. In his book The Principles of Representative Government, Bernard Manin coined the term “principle of distinction” to describe this fundamental characteristic of elections. It is the very essence of elections for people to end up voting for people who stand out as distinct, or who can project an air of self-confidence and “superiority.” Bernard Manin argues this “distinction” sentiment won out in the eighteenth century, as the framers of both the American and French constitutions, who themselves had won elections, saw election of representatives as more desirable than democratic lot.
The most significant piece of writing leading up to the 1789 Estate-General was the pamphlet, What is the Third Estate? written by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, who was to play a major role in the forthcoming revolution. He argued that the first two Estates (the clergy and the nobility) were superfluous, and that the Third Estate, though treated as “nothing,” was in fact “everything.” He contended that the nobility in particular was little more than a fraudulent, self-serving, parasitic class that contributed nothing to society, unlike farmers, craftsmen, lawyers, merchants and brokers. Like his American counterparts, he argued against an aristocracy by birth, but not against a natural or earned aristocracy. The pamphlet made the case for the drafting of a written constitution in which there were no privileged Estates.
On May 5, 1789, the delegates gathered in Versailles: 291 nobles, 300 clergy, and 610 elected members of the Third Estate. After weeks of haggling about verifying the credentials of the elected representatives from the three estates, and defining their powers, the members of the Third Estate began meeting, with an invitation to the members of the other estates to participate in a single body, rather than by Estate. They named the gathering the “National Assembly” — not of Estates, but of the people. They took upon themselves the task of drafting a constitution for France. The King, the nobility and clergy had lost control of the process. The King sought to annul the decrees adopted by the assembly and attempted to shut it down by closing the hall where the assembly had been meeting. But the Assembly reconvened on the King’s large indoor tennis court, where the delegates swore the famous “Tennis Court Oath,” pledging not to end the assembly, which became known as the “National Constituent Assembly,” until they had finalized a constitution. By July, the Assembly had effectively become the government of France.
Some years into the Revolution, the president of the National Assembly, Boissy d’Anglas gave a speech which summarized his elite vision for the republic.
“We should be governed by the best among us; the best are the most highly educated, and those with the greatest interest in upholding the laws; save for the rarest exceptions, you will only find such men among those who, by reason of their owning property are devoted to the land in which it is situated … If you were to grant unlimited political rights to men without property, and if they were ever to take their place in the legislative assembly, they would provoke disturbances, or cause them to be provoked, without fear of the consequences; they would levy or permit the levying of taxes fatal to trade and agriculture…” (quoted in McPhee 2001, 160)
Like the comparable U.S. documents, the language of the the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the rest of the revolutionary Constitution had a universal ring, but rights were circumscribed, with male property owners over the age of 25 being deemed “active citizens,” while the bulk of society was relegated to the status of “passive citizens,” and could not vote, nor serve in office. This distinction, crafted by the political philosopher and republican, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, provided the justification for denying equal rights to the poor. The Constitution also embraced the separation of powers advocated by the likes of Madison and Montesquieu, as well as the sanctity of property rights.
The elections under this constitution followed the same pattern as the 1789 elections, with primary assemblies of “active citizens,” followed by secondary electoral assemblies that elected the actual representatives to the National Legislative Assembly. The turnout in the elections was even lower than in 1789, with estimates of around 20 percent of the “active citizens.” Although the members of the National Constituent Assembly barred themselves from serving in the new National Legislative Assembly (a significant anti-entrenchment rule, which their American counterparts did not consider), there was every reason to expect the election process would return men like them; lawyers, wealthy property owners, merchants and so on. Indeed, those who sought and won election, as in 1789, were not typical of the general population. The preponderance of wealthy elites among those elected helps explain the passage of the Le Chapelier Law of 1791, which banned guilds, and workers’ associations (precursors to unions) and made labor strikes illegal.
Faced with existential threats from the monarchies of Europe, war with Austria and Prussia was declared. Confronted by foreign troops on French soil, rebellion in the Northwest and other crises, the revolution spun out of control. There followed the election of a new Convention to draft a better constitution, the abolition of the monarchy, the declaration of France as a republic, the beheading of the deposed King, and the “reign of terror.” Military conscription was instituted, and ironically in the interests of equality, a lottery system was used. In 1793 the Convention finished work on the new constitution, and it was overwhelmingly ratified in a popular referendum with universal male suffrage. The Constitution of 1793 was far more democratic. It included universal male suffrage, a process by which it would be possible for the general citizenry, through their neighborhood assemblies, to veto any law passed by the Legislative Assembly, a 24-member executive council with limited powers, the abolition of slavery, and new popular rights added to The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But this constitution never came into effect. Faced with crisis and war, the Convention set it aside “until peace was achieved” and declared a Revolutionary Government, giving wide-ranging authority to a small group known as the Committee of Public Safety. To oppose foreign invaders and suppress those deemed “counter-revolutionaries” within, terror with cursory tribunals and executions became widespread.
There was an effort to restore stability and bring the revolution to a conclusion. The Constitution of 1795, which followed, was far more conservative — reinstating a property requirement for voting. Citizen participation was largely limited to the act of voting, as demonstrations were effectively outlawed. The new constitution also established a powerful five-member executive Directory. The Directory governed until the coup of 1799 when the three-member Consulate was established, which Napoleon Bonaparte came to dominate on his way to becoming Emperor.