Making Room for Debate and Disagreement: Participatory Politics in Revolutionary France, 1789–92

AHA Session 245
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Marriott Balcony B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sophia Rosenfeld, University of Virginia
Sophia Rosenfeld, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

In August 1789, the French National Assembly declared that the “principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation,” that the law was “the expression of the general will,” and that citizens would be guaranteed the “right to take part, in person or by their representatives, in its formation.” The Assembly claimed it would make France a state in which the legitimacy of the government stemmed from the consent of the governed, in which the legislative process embraced the views as well as the interests of the people, and in which political institutions were open and responsive to the French people. What this meant – in theory or in practice – was subject to much debate, and the means, modes, and norms associated with political participation and representative government were simultaneously negotiated, defined, and pursued during the early years of the French Revolution. “Disagreement, debate, and discussion” were themselves the subject of disagreement, debate, and discussion in Revolutionary France.

A number of questions about the interaction of politics, civil society, and political dispute figured prominently within such discussions. Among these were: What qualified as political “participation,” and how should citizens’ participation relate to the legislature’s activity? How could the state answer to both the views and interests of the people, especially when those seemed to be in conflict, or when the former seemed too equivocal to serve as the basis for political action? What was the “general will,” and how might it be found (or created)? Questions such as these shaped the political dynamics of the early years of the French Revolution, and efforts to answer them shaped ideas about whose political voices were legitimate (and whose not), as well as which forms of political behavior and political participation were acceptable (and which not).

The papers on this panel explore some ways in which legislators and citizens engaged with the promise and the uncertainties of representative governance. As they did so, those legislators and citizens invented new political institutions and new relationships among those institutions, developed and promoted new or revised political behaviors and expectations, and recognized that participatory and contestatory politics worked only under certain conditions, conditions that one had to work to bring about. With this in mind, this panel brings together Robert Blackman’s re-examination of the royal veto’s place in constitutional debates over legislative mandates and representative governance, Adrian O’Connor’s study of political correspondence and how letter-writing was enlisted to help bridge the gap between direct political participation and participation-by-delegation, and Micah Alpaugh’s analysis of how non-violent protesters sought to legitimize controversial forms of participation between 1789 and 1792. Sophia Rosenfeld will provide commentary and facilitate discussion about themes explored in and suggested by this panel.

This panel will re-examine the place of disagreement, debate, and discussion in the French Revolution, suggest new directions for research into Revolutionary and modern political culture more broadly and will, we hope, provoke fruitful discussions about the perceived place of “disagreement, debate, and discussion” in democratic politics, culture, and society.

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