In this month’s entry to the History Corner, we go all the way back to 1791 with the earliest election ever covered by Europe Elects, as Mathew Nicolson looks at the first national election held during the French Revolution. The short-lived National Legislative Assembly is remembered as divided and ineffective but was nevertheless significant as France’s first (partly) democratically-elected national representative body.
Hello and welcome to another volume of the Europe Elects History Corner. After spending some time in the mid-20th century, we’re now traveling way back to the earliest election we have yet to cover here at Europe Elects: the French legislative assembly of 1791, the first national election held in France that can vaguely be described as democratic. So grab a croissant and set your mind back 230 years to the revolutionary days of autumn 1791.
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Autumn, 1791. The Brandenburg Gate, constructed on the orders of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II, was completed. The Treaty of Sistova ended the Austro-Turkish War, ceding minor territory from the Ottoman Empire to the Habsburg Monarchy; and a patent was granted to American inventor John Fitch for the steamboat. And in France, male voters participated in the country’s first ever semi-democratic election.
The 1791 Legislative Assembly election in France has often been overlooked in historical accounts of the French Revolution. The Legislative Assembly elected in 1791 tends to be dismissed by historians as ineffectual and overshadowed by subsequent, more dramatic developments. Elections in general have been an under-researched aspect of the French Revolution, as researchers traditionally placed greater attention on ideological and cultural developments.
Later, in the 20th century, historians became more attuned to social and economic aspects to the Revolution, while political studies moved in the direction of examining political culture rather than electoral events. This lack of interest can partly be explained by the fact that these early French elections were, to quote one historian, ‘a psephologist’s nightmare’ featuring a lack of electoral records, complex electoral systems and the absence of clear party labels.
At Europe Elects, we of course believe that every election is important and worth studying, but even on its own merits, the election of 1791, as one of the first genuinely national democratic experiences for the relatively large section of the population entitled to a vote, can be viewed as an important milestone in the development of representative democracy in France, Europe and, indeed, the entire world.
The French Revolution began in 1789, completely transforming the political institutions of France. Previously, France lacked any meaningful representative body, the King wielding absolutist power over state and government. Even in a Western European context where powerful monarchies were the norm, the degree of absolutism in France was an outlier. At one end, Great Britain had developed a system of constitutional monarchy increasingly dominated by Parliament, but even other major countries had representative if not democratic bodies of some influence: the Prussian Estates, the Spanish Cortes or the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, for example.
In France, the Estates General provided a theoretical counterpart. Comprised of the ‘three estates’ of French society – the nobility, the clergy and the commoners – the Estates General was a purely advisory body to the King, possessing no power over taxation or legislation. The lack of regular sessions also hindered the institution’s ability to exert influence; although it has seen intermittent gatherings up to the early 17th century, by the time of the French Revolution the Estates General had not met for 175 years – posing, it would be fair to say, a challenge to its ability to scrutinise Royal decision-making.
The deepening social, economic and fiscal crisis France found itself in during the 1780s prompted King Louis XVI to recall the Estates General for the first time in living memory. For a full account of these early developments in the French Revolution, I would recommend Mike Duncan’s series on the French Revolution as part of his ‘Revolutions’ podcast, published between 2014 and 2015. For our more narrow look at the development of parliamentary elections in the French Revolutionary period, this meeting of the Estates General provided the kernel for representative government in France.
Frustrated at the right control over the Estates General wielded by the Nobility and Clergy, who possessed a majority vote despite representing just 5% of the French population, the Third Estate, joined by some reform-minded and pragmatic members from the First and Second, seceded to establish the National Assembly, intended to represent the people of France rather than the estates. When the hall acquired for this purpose was closed by the government, the delegates relocated to a nearby tennis court, leading to the famous Tennis Court Oath was declared, committing those present to establishing a constitution for France.
With the support of the people of Paris and parts of the army, who participated in the storming of the Bastille Prison in July 1789, the National Assembly quickly became the centre of power in Paris. In the following months, the Assembly went on to abolish the foundational institutions of the absolutist ancien regime – feudalism was abolished along with other nobility privileges; all citizens were declared equal before the law; freedom of worship was enshrined; feudal taxes and church tithes were scrapped; and the 13 regional parlements of France were suspended.
Having lost control of Paris to the National Assembly and the populace, Louis XVI found himself powerless to prevent his transformation into a constitutional monarch. A draft constitution, titled the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and influenced by the American Declaration of Independence, declared the universal rights of all men – at this time literally referring to men – who would have the right to elect their own government. The following two years saw the process of reform continue relatively peacefully, with the King occupying an awkward constitutional position that had not yet been finalised, living effectively under house arrest.
By 1791, the political situation had begun to destabilise. After two years of marginalisation by the National Assembly, King Louis XVI and his family attempted an escape to the Belgian border in June, where he hoped to establish a rival power-base and reassert his position. Unfortunately for him, he was recognised in the north-eastern town of Varennes, captured and returned to Paris, where – in the increasingly restless political environment of revolutionary France – his disloyalty contributed to the growing radicalisation of the revolutionary movement. Rather than maintain a constitutional monarch, calls grew to overthrow the monarchy entirely and establish a republic.
Louis maintained his position under the National Assembly’s tight control, and in July a large crowd of republicans were dispersed by force, resulting in the massacre of Champ de Mars which killed over a dozen protesters. Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II subsequently declared their support for Louis XVI and made vague threats of war if he were to be harmed. Meanwhile, developments far beyond Paris threatened enormous geopolitical and economic consequences for France as a slave rebellion broke out in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, marking the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.
It was in this febrile atmosphere that elections were held to the National Assembly’s successor body, the National Legislative Assembly. On the successful motion of one Maximilien Robespierre, existing deputies were barred from re-election to the new body, ensuring a further radical break from the existing institutions.
The Legislative Assembly was not elected by universal suffrage; in addition to the exclusion of all women, a tax threshold ensured that only two-thirds of men over the age of 25 were able to vote. Members were elected through a complex system of primary elections for electoral assemblies earlier in the summer, at which voters were required to attend a series of votes often extending over multiple days or even weeks in the larger cities, where several ballots were required if no candidate received a majority. These electoral assemblies in turn elected delegates to the legislative assembly.
The legislative assembly election in 1791 was not strictly the first democratic experience for the new French electorate. Prior to the revolution, there had been some opportunities to participate in regional elections. The election of the third estate to the Estates General in 1789 offered additional limited electoral experience, taken further by local elections for districts and departments held in 1790 which produced decent levels of turnout. But 1791 provided the first opportunity for French voters to elect a national representative body.
The election was not contested by clearly defined political parties and historians have proposed numerous frameworks for understanding divisions at this early stage of French party politics. It should be kept in mind therefore that any discussion of partisan divisions at this time did not necessarily reflect formal groupings and are often the product of retrospective categorisations offered by historians to help understand ideological divisions in the period.
Generally, three broad groupings or tendencies have been identified. On the right, the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, commonly known as Feuillants, accepted the constitutional status quo, supporting the reforms that had been achieved during the revolution and seeking to maintain a constitutional monarchy. On the left were Jacobins, sometimes referred to by their component groups, Britossins or Girondins, who favoured a republic. On the centre were a group known as La Plaine, or sometimes Le Marais – the Marsh, a loosely-defined grouping which would vote with either the Feuillants or the Jacobins on an issue-by-issue basis.
The election produced a plurality for the centrist Le Marais group, followed by the centre-right Feuillants and then Jacobins as the smallest group. No single group or tendency had a majority in the Legislative Assembly, and its overall inclination was moderate in nature, though the Jacobins were able to exert outsized influence through the control of important committees. Turnout was, however, much lower than in the previous year’s local elections, partly due to the complex and time-consuming electoral system but also indicating a growing disillusionment with the new constitutional institutions. Turnout tended to be higher in rural parts of the country, where there had been a stronger tradition of local assemblies prior to the Revolution, and where voters typically did not need to devote weeks to the electoral process.
In September, just weeks after the election was held and before the new Assembly convened, Louis XVI promulgated the new French constitution, apparently confirming France’s status as a constitutional monarchy. The National Assembly would go on to sit for one year, overseeing several key developments in the ongoing revolutionary process. The Assembly approved resolutions confiscating the property of aristocratic emigres pursuing counter-revolution and sought to enforce constitutional limitations upon the clergy, though both measures were vetoed by Louis XVI. The Assembly also led the country into the French Revolutionary Wars against Austria and Prussia, later progressing into a coalition comprising most major European states.
Finally, in the wake of several military defeats, a republican insurrection in August 1792 forced the Legislative Assembly, in one of its final acts, to relieve the King of his powers, a decision that its successor body, the National Convention elected in 1792, would make permanent. Louis XVI and his Queen Consort, Marie Antoinette, would be executed months after, and the democratic, constitutionalist path offered by the 1791 election broke down into the Reign of Terror.
While short-lived, divided and ultimately swept away by a revolutionary process hurtling towards greater radicalism and violence, the National Legislative Assembly of 1791 marked an important moment in the history both of France and the world. For the first time, the French people were represented and governed by a political institution which had been elected under semi-democratic conditions, ending centuries of absolute monarchy. The process of holding a democratic vote helped consolidate the growing ideals of liberty and democracy in practice, which would continue to spread within and beyond the French borders for decades and even centuries to come.
Crook, Malcolm, Elections in the French Revolution: An Apprenticeship in Democracy, 1789-1799 (Cambridge, 1996).
McPhee, Peter, Living the French Revolution, 1789-99 (Basingstoke, 2006).
Mitchell, C.J., ‘Political Divisions Within the Legislative Assembly of 1791,’ French Historical Studies 13.3 (Spring 1984), pp. 356-89.