Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789-1790) / Edition 1

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Winner of the Leo Gershoy Prize from the American Historical Association, 1998, for the best book in Early Modern European History.

Timothy Tackett’s Becoming a Revolutionary revisits one of the most controversial moments in history: the beginning of the French Revolution. How did it arise? Why did French men and women become revolutionaries? To answer these questions, Tackett focuses on the experiences of the 1200 members of the first French National Assembly. Drawing upon on a wide range of sources, including contemporary letters and diaries, Tackett shows that the deputies were a group of practical men, whose ideas were governed more by concrete subjects than by abstract philosophy. Though it may seem surprising now, most of the deputies were actually in support of the king. Instead of being initiated as a result of a specific ideology founded on Enlightenment principles, the ideas that eventually led to the French Revolution were, instead, a direct result of the actual process of the Assembly.

First published in 1996 and hailed as an “exemplary product of the historian’s craft,” Becoming a Revolutionary is now available in paperback for the first time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This book is an exemplary product of the historian's craft, exhibiting a mastery of a vast array of sources, including some 57 public and private archives. Building on this evidential base, Tackett speaks to fundamental issues in the historiography of the French Revolution.”
—Alan B. Spitzer, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

“Timothy Tackett’s book is a critical intervention in the debate on the French revolution. It stands eloquent testimony to an emerging post-revisionist current, one that seeks to reveal the empirical inadequacy of the revisionist case.”
—James Livesey, H-Net Book Reviews

“A new book by Timothy Tackett is always one to be welcomed, for he is at once an able writer, a respected scholar, and a pioneer in the art of applying a new methodology to major problems in socio-political history. Moreover, in this book, which is as informative in detail as it is authoritative in substance, he brings his fresh approach to a particularly crucial question, that of the composition and character of the Constituent Assembly, the first national parliament of Revolutionary France.”
—Michael Sydenham, Social History

“By exhaustive and resourceful combing of archives and libraries throughout France, Tackett has unearthed far more evidence about the views of the members of the National Assembly than anybody before him. . . . In every sense, this book shows that, even on topics about which we thought we knew everything, the last word has not been said.”
—William Doyle, Journal of Modern History

“Narratives abound of France’s first legislature, the Estates General of 1789, which became the Constituent Assembly of 1789–1791. None involve the detailed research that this coherent, collective biography of its total 1,315 deputies represents. Timothy Tackett has combed the public and private archives of France to find over 150 separate collections of deputies’ correspondence. . . . Tackett’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of that revolutionary France.”
—Emmet Kennedy, American Historical Review

“A major contribution to the history of the French Revolution.”
—Sarah Maza, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“For two hundred years, historians have vigorously debated a basic enigma of the French Revolution: how a group of men without a preconceived goal, divided in their intentions as well as their backgrounds, managed to come together in an undertaking that ultimately led to the overthrow of the Old Regime. In this meticulously documented and convincingly argued study, Timothy Tackett has made a major contribution to this historical debate. . . . By his richly detailed charting of the transformations which occurred in the attitudes of these deputies, Tackett has provided valuable insight into how their reactions to the political contingencies and social interactions which they experienced ultimately turned them into revolutionaries.”
—Jo Ann Browning Seeley, Catholic Historical Review

“Tackett reintroduces a social dimension to revolutionary politics. . . . His provocative book both challenges many of the ‘revisionist’ arguments and raises questions about the interpretation of the Revolution.”
—Mike Rapport, History

“A major contribution to the history of the French Revolution.”

—Sarah Maza, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

From the Publisher

“A major contribution to the history of the French Revolution.”

—Sarah Maza, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271028880
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 1/20/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 372
  • Sales rank: 1,401,940
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.19 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Timothy Tackett is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is When the King Took Flight (2003).

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Read an Excerpt

Becoming a Revolutionary

The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789â?"1790)

By Timothy Tackett


Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04384-5


The Three Estates


Who were they, then, these men of the Estates General, who first took their seats in Versailles? Many of the representatives themselves would pose this question as they looked about the hall at their new colleagues and speculated on their qualifications for the task at hand. Over the next two centuries, historians intrigued by the links between Old Regime experience and Revolutionary action would continue to reflect on the pre-Revolutionary backgrounds of the deputies. Yet virtually all of the studies of the Assembly to date have been based on a few easily quantifiable variables like professional tides, age, and region represented. If we are to grasp the full reality of the delegates' pre-Revolutionary experience, we must broaden the inquiry to include not only their social and geographical origins, their careers, and their economic situation, but also the far more difficult and complex problems of their values and political culture. Fortunately, in undertaking such a task, we can rely on several generations of individual biographies and collective biographical dictionaries.

Numbers and General Profile

In the earliest days of the Assembly, no one was even quite sure how many they were. The original royal ruling of December 1788 had projected 1,000: 250 from each of the privileged estates and 500 from the commoners. But continual ministerial tinkering with the electoral guidelines for specific provinces increased that number substantially. By the time of the official convocation, there should normally have been some 1,200 deputies on hand at Versailles. Yet for a variety of reasons, many of the deputies were slow in arriving, and witnesses estimated that only 800 participated in the procession on May 4, including about 500 of the predicted 600 members of the Third Estate. Curé Barbotin and his fellow deputies from Le Quesnoy appeared in the Assembly only on May 11, Bailly and the other 39 delegates from Paris on May 24; while Escuret-Laborde rode in from the distant Pays de Soule only in late June; and deputies from France's far-flung colonies—two of whom had perished in a shipwreck en route—were still filtering in as late as February 1791.

Moreover, since the problem of verifying credentials was at the heart of the initial political maneuvering between the Third Estate and the privileged orders, it was well into June before evaluation procedures were established for the Assembly as a whole, and it was mid-July before decisions were made on several of the more controversial elections. By this time, some 1,177 deputies seem to have been certified to sit with the "National Assembly." Of these, 604 were representatives of the Third Estate (51.3 percent of the total); 295 of the Clergy (25.1 percent); and 278 of the Nobles (23.6 percent). Over the entire life of the Assembly, taking into account replacements for deputy resignations and deaths, 1,315 men were officially accredited and seated—330 for the Clergy, 322 for the Nobles, and 663 for the Third Estate. While the royal guidelines had envisioned a balance between the number of Third deputies, on the one hand, and those from the two privileged orders, on the other, the quirks of the elections—and notably the boycott of the proceedings by the privileged deputies of Brittany—had actually given a slight majority to the Third Estate. Such a situation made the conservative leaders of the privileged orders all the more wary of uniting the estates.

But whatever its precise numbers at a given point in time, the first French National Assembly was remarkably large, perhaps the largest such representative body in Western European history. It was almost three times as large as the previous Estates General of 1614 and it would have seemed a veritable sea of people beside the 55 men who assembled two years earlier to forge an American constitution or even the 558 members of the eighteenth-century House of Commons. The very size of the Constituent inevitably helped fashion the particular personality of that body. To the end, the Assembly would maintain a distinctly impersonal character. A number of deputies commented on the difficulties of locating specific friends or associates in the great mass of men spread out around them, "although we spend seven to eight hours a day in the same hall." After eight months of daily sessions, Doctor Jean-Gabriel Gallot indicated his inability to learn the names of many of his colleagues, even among those who sat next to him on the same side of the room and whose faces he had grown to recognize.

More important, the very size of the Assembly would measurably affect its operations. Virtually every action which it undertook was slowed by the sheer weight of numbers. Especially in the days before the committee system was perfected, a given debate might see thirty, fifty, eighty individuals sign up to speak. Roll calls could linger on interminably for three hours or more. "One has to consider," wrote the Flemish lawyer François-Joseph Bouchette, "what it is like to have 1,200 people in an assembly, and what would happen if everyone wanted to have his chance to speak.... We can only be patient." Looking back after a year and a half of struggles, the comte de Mirabeau concluded that it was the "great size" of the Assembly, as much as anything else, which made it so unwieldy and difficult to organize. Frequently it took on a life of its own, veering off on any given day in quite unpredictable directions and rendering the exercise of leadership by specific factions or individuals extremely difficult to maintain—much to the chagrin of Mirabeau. In addition, the considerable number of deputies would necessitate the use of very large assembly halls. Since both of the principal rooms used—the Menus Plaisirs in Versailles and the Manège des Tuileries in Paris—possessed deplorable acoustics, it was impossible to speak effectively without a particularly powerful voice. There was thus a physiological component to leadership, sharply limiting the proportion of s members who could take active roles in debate.

From the beginning, the ministers had sought to base representation on population and wealth as well as on territory. This no doubt explains the greater contingent of deputies from the electoral districts of northern France. Over 70 percent represented constituencies north of the line between La Rochelle and Geneva. But not all milieus within those districts were equally well represented. Thirty percent of the deputies resided in towns of over 20,000 inhabitants and nearly two-thirds lived in "towns" of any size—defined here as settlements with agglomerated populations of at least 2,000 people. Indeed, if one excludes the deputy parish priests, overwhelmingly posted in rural parishes, the proportion of urban deputies rises to almost 75 percent—compared to only 18 percent for the overall French population. A majority of the men of '89 probably envisioned themselves more as the representatives of specific towns than as the representatives of general rural districts. It is thus scarcely surprising that a great many deputies never really appreciated the problems of the countrypeople and would seem altogether baffled by rural religious culture.

Yet not all of the deputies lived in the districts they represented. There were no residence requirements in the royal electoral regulations, and in the end, at least 175 (13 percent) of the delegates were outsiders to their constituencies, linked at best through ties of landholding or family tradition. Many of the colonial representatives actually resided in France, some with only the most tenuous connections to their electoral districts. By far the greatest number of nonresident deputies were from Paris. This was, as we shall see, particularly the case among the deputies of the Nobility, over a hundred of whom had left the capital in the spring of 1789 and scattered to the four corners of the kingdom to seek election. In all, at least 211 deputies, better than one in six, resided in Paris. Since most of these deputies had substantial property holdings in the city, it is little wonder that they would be particularly sensitive to events developing there.

On the whole, the men of the first National Assembly were mature and at the peak of their powers, with an average age of about forty-six years at the beginning of their tenures in office—a little over forty-five for the Nobles and Commoners, and a little over fifty for the Clergy. In this, they were about three years older than the representatives to the American Constitutional Convention, but probably somewhat younger than those sitting in the House of Commons. The statistical average concealed, however, an extraordinary range of ages: from young Mathieu de Montmorency, who had just turned twenty-two, through the aged bishop of Bazas, who was over eighty, and with at least one deputy at almost every age in between. But neither the average age nor the range adequately describes the generational dynamic at work within the National Assembly. As we shall discover, positions of leadership—among both radicals and conservatives—were often dominated by the more youthful deputies. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many of the deputies judged their colleagues to be younger than they really were. In describing the Third Estate, Creuzé-Latouche referred to "the fervor of the young men who constitute the majority," and he frequently attached the adjective "young" in describing leading Constituent speakers (Barnave, Robespierre, the comte de Virieu, the due d'Aiguillon, and the abbé Grégoire). Adrien-Cyprien Duquesnoy—at the mature age of thirty—spoke disapprovingly of "legislators in bibs" (Montmorency and the comte de Castellane) and of "beardless young men" (Barnave and Alexandre de Lameth).

As there were no age or residence requirements, neither were the deputies held to represent their "natural" orders. If all the clerical deputies were in fact clergymen—and apparently all but one were priests—at least eight of the Nobles were members of the clerical Order of Malta, and four deputies of the Third were full-fledged ecclesiastics (including one canon, two additional knights of Malta, and the vicar-general Sieyès). Indeed, the baron de Flachslanden, elected by the Third Estate of Haguenau, was both a clergyman and a member of the sword nobility. In addition to the 322 members of the Second Estate, all of whom were nobles, another 85 nobles sat with the Clergy and 58 with the Third Estate. Over a third of the entire membership of the National Assembly belonged to the nobility.

Yet despite such overlaps, each of the three orders had its distinct character. Since social and cultural backgrounds were of no small importance in later political options, it is important to examine the three estates with some care.

The Clergy

The salient characteristic of the deputies of the First Estate, widely noted by contemporaries and by all historians since, was the extraordinary proportion of parish priests within that delegation. Representing only about one in ten of the clergymen attending the Estates General of 1614, the "curés"—as the chief parish priests were called in France—now amounted to almost three-fourths of the total clerical contingent. This curious turn of events can be directly attributed to the electoral rulings devised by the minister Jacques Necker in January 1789, rulings which gave one vote to every cure in the electoral assemblies and allowed proxy votes for those unable to attend. But it can also be ascribed to the intense politicization and active organization of the parish clergy which allowed the lower clergy to make maximum use of those procedures. The remaining First Estate deputies represented a wide variety of clerical positions. Some 46 of the total were prelates—14 percent, compared to 41 percent in the Estates General of 1614—including 34 bishops, 10 archbishops, and 2 episcopal coadjutors. Closely associated with the episcopal contingent were the 27 other members of the upper clergy: vicars-general, for the most part, but also a retired bishop, an agent-general of the Clergy of France, 3 conseillers clercs attached to the sovereign courts, and an abbé commendataire linked to the royal ministry (the orator-academician, Maury). The clerical estate was rounded out with a group of 26 canons, ecclesiastical teachers or non-parish regulars. Of all the elements of the Old Regime clergy, it was the last-mentioned category, the regulars, who were the most dramatically under-represented. Constituting close to half of the entire clerical corps—if one includes the women religious—the regulars held only about 3 percent of the clerical seats. This state of affairs was related once again to Necker's electoral regulations, which allowed only one electoral delegate for each religious house, but it also reflected the low esteem in which such clergymen were held by the great bulk of the clerical electorate. In any case, the mere token presence of the regulars in the Assembly would render the defense of monastic orders much more difficult when the institution came under attack in the fall of 1789.

On the whole, the clerical deputies were a mature and highly respectable group of men. All had completed their secondary training and had spent from one to four years in a seminary. Over half are known to have held university diplomas in theology or canon law—the bachelor's degree or beyond—and the actual proportion might easily have been two-thirds or higher. With an average age of over fifty years, the Clergy was also markedly older than the other two estates. Indeed, the bishops, who averaged almost fifty-five years, were the oldest of all the subgroups in the National Assembly. Only the vicars-general—most of whom were younger nobles waiting to assume posts as bishops—averaged substantially under fifty. The age of the Clergy, however, was probably indicative less of an electoral preference for older men, than of the nature of the clerical electorate. The electoral regulations made no provisions for representation of the great mass of younger assistant parish priests or "vicaires." In fact, the average age of the curés deputies (about fifty years) was almost exactly the average of all cures in France at the time.

Though they were clearly disadvantaged in terms of numbers, the deputy bishops were not without their strengths and assets. They were a distinguished group, representing ten of France's eighteen archbishoprics and many of the richest and most prestigious sees in the realm, including Paris, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Rouen, Reims, Bourges, Aix, Poitiers, and Amiens. All, without exception, were nobles and most originated among the great aristocratic families of France. Nearly three-quarters could trace their nobility to the fourteenth century or earlier and only two were from families ennobled in the eighteenth century. Many of the bishops, moreover, were related to one another. There were two Champion de Cicés, two Talleyrands, four La Rochefoucaulds, and almost certainly many other cousins with different surnames. Similar ties of family and lineage bound them to most of the deputy vicars-general, who were also overwhelmingly noble. From the revenues of their bishoprics alone—not to mention additional benefices and personal family possessions—all were wealthy and some were immensely wealthy with yearly revenues well above 100,000 livres. All of the bishops and archbishops, moreover, and most of the vicars-general, had studied at the same seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and many had known each other well since school days. They sat together in the General Assembly of the Clergy which met every five years in Paris, and several—Boisgelin of Aix, Dulau of Aries, La Rochefoucauld of Rouen, Le Franc de Pompignan of Vienne—had played major leadership roles over the years within their order. Ignoring the canonical strictures on residence, over half of the bishops habitually resided in the capital, where they might meet at court or in Parisian salons or in the meetings of the General Assembly. Their considerable experience with power and their long-developed habit of working with one another would greatly facilitate joint political action in the early weeks of the Revolution.


Excerpted from Becoming a Revolutionary by Timothy Tackett. Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents







The Enigma of the Revolution

The Witnesses and Their Testimony



1. THE THREE ESTATES: A Collective Biography

Numbers and General Profile

The Clergy

The Nobility

The Third Estate

2. A Revolution of the Mind?

The Deputies and the Enlightenment

Deputy Publications before the Revolution

The Religious Culture of the Deputies

Ideology and Revolution

3. The Political Apprenticeship

Political Mobilization after 1770

The Municipal Mobilization of 1788-1789

Birth of the Aristocratic Party

The Electoral Assemblies of 1789

Third Opinion on the Eve of the Estates General

Noble Opinion on the Eve of the Estates General


4. The Creation of the National Assembly

Factional Formation in the Early Third Estate

The Clerical Estate and the Dominance of the Episcopacy

The Noble Estate and the Culture of Intransigence

The Breton Club and the Emergence of a Third Consensus

The Revolutionary Moment

5. The Experience of Revolution

The Deputies and the King

The Mid-July Crisis


The Night of August 4

6. Fractional Formation and the Revolutionary Dynamic:

August to November

The Conservative Offensive

The September Debates and the Limited Victory of the Right

The October Days: Break and Continuity

The Formation of the Jacobins


7. The Deputies as Lawgivers

The Struggle for Self-Definition

Organizing the Assembly

Bureaus and Committees

Leadership and Oratory

Constituency Relations

8. Jacobins and Capuchins: The Revolutionary Dynamic through April 1790

The Deputy Outlook after October

Political Alignments at the Beginning of 1790

The Advance of the Left through February 1790

The Religious Question and the Abortive Resurgence of the Right

9. To End a Revolution

The King’s New Direction

Division of the Left and the Triumph of ’89

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Suppression of the Nobility

Commemorating the Revolution: The Federation of 1790



Marriage Dowries of Deputies in Livres


Estimated Deputy Fortunes and Incomes in Livres at the End of the Old Regime


Leading Deputy Speakers during the National Assembly



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