Left to the Naive

Robespierre Meanwhile back in France, October 1 is the anniversary of the first meeting of the Legislative Assembly in 1791, the body that gave us the terms “left” and “right” in politics. But mostly left.

Try to follow a quick dismal backstory here. In 1789 the hapless Louis XVI summoned the French parody equivalent of a Parliament, the Estates-General, for the first time since 1614. It promptly deadlocked, and then the “Third Estate,” the commoners, decided their chamber was the whole legislature and turned itself into the National Assembly. Then it became the National Constituent Assembly on the theory that the sovereign authority of the French people was in its hands.

It then proceeded to be in practice the entire government, a system known as “convention government,” where instead of checking the executive the legislature takes on that role as well and who’s going to stop us? Then it dissolved following elections to the Legislative Assembly, which despite the pale twitching figure of the king still wandering the stage was another example of convention government, with one unhelpful twist.

The rules for the 1791 election included that nobody who had sat in the National Assembly could be elected to the Legislative Assembly. Which given the foul odor in which the monarchy rightly found itself meant supreme power was almost entirely in the hands of people with no experience in national affairs. Instead they were buffeted by events and manipulated by power brokers operating outside the formal system including one Maximilien Robespierre, who had been in the National Assembly and in fact had put forward the motion that none of its members would be eligible for the Legislative Assembly.

As events spun out of control in 1792 and the king was arrested, the Legislative Assembly decided to dissolve itself less than a year after first meeting, and summon a new National Convention. And to that body Robespierre returned to direct the increasingly ghastly Reign of Terror including as a member of the Orwellian Committee of Public Safety that was effectively the executive branch in France during the worst excesses of the Revolution. (It is because it happened under the National Convention that we call this highly unsatisfactory arrangement “convention government.)

Would all this have happened with more experienced members in the Legislative Assembly? Very possibly. The pressures that exploded in France between 1789 and 1794 had been building for a very long time, from long before the last futile pre-revolutionary summoning of the Estates-General. But with all due respect to the undesirable qualities of career politicians, there is something to be said for experience and a steady hand in turbulent waters. And it sure didn’t help that France lacked those from 1791-92.

It’s not the only reason left devoured right more or less literally in this period. But it did help set the stage for it.