Liberty and Locality in Revolutionary France: Six Villages Compared, 1760-1820

By Peter Jones | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Sovereignty in the village

As France's legislators cut themselves adrift from the ancien régime, many observers sensed the start of an experiment in local power sharing whose outcome could not be foreseen. 'This idea of governing a kingdom of twenty-four [sic] millions of inhabitants by municipalities,' commented the American envoy in Paris, 'is so new that all opinions respecting it can only be conjectures.'1 Yet the idea with all its imponderables quickly took root. As doubt mounted about the political infallibility of legislative assemblies, Saint-Just reminded fellow deputies that 'the sovereignty of the nation resides in the communes'.2 By the end of the first full year of revolution those communes or villages in this instance were coming to terms with the fact that the System had indeed changed. Agendas fashioned from the grievances of the ancien régime or shaped out of the crisis of 1789 were being overtaken by the flow of events in the manner outlined in chapter 3. Once it became obvious that the institutional grip of seigneurialism had been loosened beyond any hope of recovery, village elites scrambled to disentangle themselves. The new regime would not lack opportunities for advancement, and those travelling the new channels of social promotion could expect to avoid the conflicts of interest that had faced servants of the seigneurial regime. The 'sovereignty' of the village would never be absolute, of course; nor would it always serve as a reliable political compass for legislators. It would nevertheless remain an experience deeply etched into the minds of those men and women who attained maturity just as the 'old' France was ceasing to exist.

The power play of village politics is not easy to decipher, however. While historians from the time of Georges Lefebvre onwards have made a point of stressing the role played by actors in local arenas in sustaining

____________________
1
J. P. Boyd (ed.), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (27 vols., Princeton, N.J., 1950–97), XVI, William Short to John Jay, Paris, 23 January 1790.
2
Saint-Just, Essai de constitution lu dans la séance du 24 avril [1793] à la Convention nationale, & imprimé par son ordre, chapter II, article VI.

-163-

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