The Rights of Man and the Right to Vote: The Franchise Question During the French Revolution
The study of elections is a poor relation of revolutionary historiography. 1 Many aspects of the subject remain unclear or little investigated, and the very nature of the franchise is frequently misunderstood, although the prolonged debate over how citizens should exercise their electoral rights was an extremely important one. This chapter seeks to clarify the situation, not only by reexamining suffrage legislation during the 1790s, but also by exploring its application at the local level. Limitations on the revolutionary franchise have often been exaggerated and sometimes blamed for inhibiting participation in electoral politics. I will argue that, on the contrary, it was the system of indirect elections, through the agency of electoral colleges, that constituted the real barrier to democracy, while the antiquated procedures inherited from the ancien régime constituted a major cause of widespread abstentionism.
By rendering the nation, or the people, the source of sovereignty in France, the revolutionaries placed the question of who should vote and how they should do so at the center of the political agenda. It was generally agreed, however, that the issue of "direct democracy" was already being raised in the districts of Paris and that the size of the country necessitated a representative system of some sort. The sovereignty of the people was, therefore, transformed into a droit d'élire, and a definition of the franchise became essential. 2 In a report presented to the Comité de Constitution, toward the end of July 1789, the influential abbé Sieyès had already floated the notion of a distinction between "active citizens" who voted and "passive citizens" who did not. 3
Most deputies in the National Constituent Assembly agreed with Sieyès's ideas, which also reflected the accumulated wisdom of the philosophes. 4 When the Comité de Constitution's proposals on the franchise were presented to the National Assembly by its spokesman Jacques-Guillaume Thouret, on September 29, they duly reflected the prevailing consensus on the need for restrictions. Not just two categories of citizens, active and passive, were recommended, but four. Active citizens, who qualified by the payment of the equivalent of three days' local wages in direct taxation, had to cross a further hurdle of ten journées de travail in impositions before they became eligible for local office. Finally, in order to serve as a national deputy, a tax