“A Source of Moral Existence, and So Truly Indispensable”: Letter-Writing, Participatory Politics, and the General Will in Revolutionary France

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Marriott Balcony B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Adrian O'Connor, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg
The Revolutionaries of late-eighteenth century France were well aware that participatory and democratic politics faced a serious geographical – and with that logistical – problem in a country of roughly twenty-seven million people. How was political debate, discussion, even constructive disagreement supposed to take place across such wide expanses and among so many people? Given such difficulties, how could they establish a government that was truly representative, one in which political participation was not just a charade, but a legitimate foundation for the law and the state?

While the Declaration of the Rights of Man presented political participation as taking place either “in person” or through a representative – that is, in terms of physical presence or delegation – the actual terms on which an individual might seek to participate were shaped as much by the written as the spoken word, with letter-writing and political correspondence serving as a means by which to overcome physical or geographical constraints on political engagement. Based upon a survey of the voluminous correspondence received by the revolutionary government(s) between fall 1789 and the overthrow of the Legislative Assembly in August 1792 (roughly 50,000 letters), this paper will examine letter-writing as a mode of political participation as well as its place in the expectations and ambitions that shaped politics in the early years of the French Revolution. In so doing, it aims to shed light on how people across France understood, responded to, and attempted to make real the promise of participatory and representative government in Revolutionary France.