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

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

by Timothy Tackett

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Here Timothy Tackett tests some of the diverse explanations of the origins of the French Revolution by examining the psychological itineraries of the individuals who launched it--the deputies of the Estates General and the National Assembly. Based on a wide variety of sources, notably the letters and diaries of over a hundred deputies, the book assesses their


Here Timothy Tackett tests some of the diverse explanations of the origins of the French Revolution by examining the psychological itineraries of the individuals who launched it--the deputies of the Estates General and the National Assembly. Based on a wide variety of sources, notably the letters and diaries of over a hundred deputies, the book assesses their collective biographies and their cultural and political experience before and after 1789. In the face of the current "revisionist" orthodoxy, it argues that members of the Third Estate differed dramatically from the Nobility in wealth, status, and culture.Virtually all deputies were familiar with some elements of the Enlightenment, yet little evidence can be found before the Revolution of a coherent oppositional "ideology" or "discourse." Far from the inexperienced ideologues depicted by the revisionists, the Third Estate deputies emerge as practical men, more attracted to law, history, and science than to abstract philosophy. Insofar as they received advance instruction in the possibility of extensive reform, it came less from reading books than from involvement in municipal and regional politics and from the actions and decrees of the monarchy itself. Before their arrival in Versailles, few deputies envisioned changes that could be construed as "Revolutionary." Such new ideas emerged primarily in the process of the Assembly itself and continued to develop, in many cases, throughout the first year of the Revolution.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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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.
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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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