Academic journal article The Historian

The French Revolution and the Birth of Electoral Democracy

Academic journal article The Historian

The French Revolution and the Birth of Electoral Democracy

Article excerpt

The French Revolution and the Birth of Electoral Democracy. By Melvin Edelstein. (Farnham, United Kingdom: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xiv, 365. $149.95.)

The author of this study has spent most of his career studying elections in the French Revolution. He has published his results piecemeal over the years, and now he brings them all together in a major book that appears simultaneously in English and in French--a rare distinction. In writing it, he has tracked down electoral documents from all over France and struggled impressively with subjecting them to coherent analysis. Given their wild inconsistencies and uneven survival in the archives, this is a notable achievement. He presents his evidence and conclusions in terse, unadorned language completely free of obfuscating jargon, and they are full of originality. Despite the consistent commitment of the French revolutionaries to representative government, their various attempts to establish it and make it work have always been controversial. For the Revolution's critics, electoral participation rates--low by modern standards--have demonstrated how little popular support it had. Mountainous majorities in successive constitutional plebiscites have also always aroused suspicions of widespread manipulation.

From this perspective, most voting during the French Revolution seemed like a pitiable sham. Friendly interpreters, on the other hand, have seen the beginnings of modern democratic practice and excused ambiguous, disappointing, or frankly incredible results by pointing to the difficulties of setting up electoral democracy from scratch in eighteenth-century conditions. Melvin Edelstein is clearly in this camp. It is absurd, he believes, to judge revolutionary elections by later standards. Much more relevant are comparisons with elections in other states at the time, such as unreformed Great Britain or the infant United States. …

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