Timothy Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary, 1996

“We do not tolerate the idea that an undertaking entered into that is contrary to morals or obtained either by violence or fraud can bind contracting parties. Thus, when public opinion is faced with cases of this kind it shows it less indifferent than we have just asserted, and it adds its disapprobation to the legal sanction, causing it to weigh more heavily. This is because there are no clear cut partitions between the various domains of moral life.” – Emile Durkheim The Division of Labor in Society

Renowned French sociologist Emile Durkheim was not commenting on the French Revolution, but rather on the solidarity of communities and peoples under the division of labor. However despite the quotation’s differing context, Durkheim reveals sensibilities concerning public opinion and the difficulty of dictating or legislating “between the domains of moral life”. While Durkheim intended these remarks for a distinctly different discussion, they can be applied to Timothy Tackett’s work, Becoming a Revolutionary. Tackett’s exploration of the deputies at the Estates General and National Assembly reveals the countervailing forces of both issues. Additionally, Tackett examines the backgrounds, political culture, and ongoing debates that shaped the deputies thoughts and actions within the Assembly. Following the itineraries of the deputies of 1789, exploring the significance of their understanding of the origins and development of the Revolution, Tackett charts “this transformation [of the deputies] in collective psychology and to evaluate certain hypothesis which scholars have proposed to explain the Revolutionary phenomenon,” (302). The issues Durkheim discusses are only two of several others influencing the deputies of the National Assembly in its first year of existence. Public opinion and the deputies’ collective understanding of it, became more resolute and concrete, repeatedly exerting an influence over the thought and action of the deputies. “The domains of moral life,” or the attempt made by the Assembly to create new tradition, new statehood, a new morality, served as a catalyst to animosities between competing groups within the Assembly attempting to inject their own beliefs into the national consciousness.

Tackett focuses on essentially the pre-Revolution through the summer of 1790 claiming “For the deputies of the Constituent Assembly, the decrees of June 1790 … were perhaps the last great Revolutionary acts. Though much remained to be accomplished, and though the Assembly would prolong its existence for well over a year, the fundamental constitutional decisions had largely been made, and most of the final months would be devoted to consolidation and cleanup,” (302). Separating the Revolution into two phases with an a brief intermission period, Tackett distinguishes the second phase or “history” (beginning “early summer of 1789”) or the Revolution from its initial “origins” or first phase.

An impressive array of primary sources abounds throughout Tackett’s work. Formal minutes, reports by the National Assembly, newspaper accounts, reflections on the events by outsiders, and the private correspondence of the deputies are all utilized with great skill. Especially persuasive is Tackett’s use of the actual language of the deputies. Tackett’s integration of the private correspondences of the deputies proves to impressively buoy his argument that the deputies were little influenced by Enlightenment philosophy (including Rousseau) prior to the Revolution. In order to prove his argument, Tackett examines the political culture of the deputies in three primary domains: intellectual, political, and social. According to historians like Francios Furet, the Revolutionaries were political amateurs influenced heavily by the abstract philosophical tracts of the Enlightenment. In contrast, Tackett argues practical political experience in municipal government, guilds, and other organizational structures replaced this philosophical deprivation. Tackett’s deputies display a distinct pragmatism throughout the work. Deputies became acquainted with Enlightenment philosophy through actions related to the Assembly:

The ideological mix, the conceptual frameworks were present among the men of 1789 for any number of political options, for any number of revolutions, or reform movements or counter-revolutions. The ideological choices that emerged most dominant in the course of the Revolution developed above all, as a function of specific political contingencies, and social interactions within the Assembly and between the Assembly and the population as a whole. (75)

However, despite disagreeing with the revisionist school here, Tackett agrees with much of its argument concerning the Revolution’s first phase, “For the first phase, our study reinforces one of the central tenets of much “revisionist” history, that a severe fiscal and political crisis of the royal government was a sine qua non to the outbreak of revolution,” (302). However, Tackett argues that the revisionist school too readily altogether dismisses class conflict. Rather he points out; divisions did exist, playing a central role in the debates, however these divisions were rooted in more than class. According to Tackett, divisions in wealth, education, and status also proved divisive.

Roger Chartier also argues against the dominance of Enlightenment thought on the Revolution. Chartier examining the process of intellectual diffusion necessary for the spread of Enlightenment ideals, comments:

The diffusion of ideas cannot be held to be a simple imposition. Reception always involves appropriation, which transforms, reformulates, and exceeds what it receives. Opinion is in no way a receptacle, nor is it a soft wax to be written upon. The circulation of thoughts or cultural models is always a dynamic and creative process. Texts to invert the question do not bear within them a stable and univocal meaning, and their migrations within a given society produce interpretations that are mobile, plural, and even contradictory. (Chartier, 19)

Undoubtedly, Tackett supports Chartier’s argument in this stage. Moreover, he cites Chartier and his work within Becoming a Revolutionary. Revolutionary ideology came gradually to many of the deputies. The Assembly did not serve as a ideological vault of Enlightenment idealism, instead, “The Assembly process also served to crystallize and intensify social antagonisms, making many deputies far more self-conscious of those antagonisms than ever before … Social animosity borne more of a status struggle than a class struggle, was perhaps the single most potent ingredient in the origins of a Revolutionary psychology in June 1789” (308). Moreover, Tackett believes the Enlightenment played a more peripheral role in the formation of Revolutionary ideology, “But in most cases, it was only after the Revolutionary dynamic had been set into motion that the deputies began to “understand” the more radical political proposal of the Enlightenment thinkers and of the Breton group and its following,” (308). Thus, Tackett is arguing that not only has the Enlightenment’s role been overstated, but also that the political leanings of the Estates General (especially those from the Third Estate) were far more conservative initially then historians many claim. The Breton group representing a more radical left (later to become the Palais Royal in the Assembly).

However, Tackett differs with Chartier concerning “desacralization”. Arguing that the “desacralization” of the King greatly undermined the Monarch’s authority, Chartier believed this to be an influencing factor concerning the “origins” of the Revolution. In contrast, Tackett finds a distinct underlying respect for the King throughout many of the deputies correspondences including the Third Estate, “In most of the Third Estate brochures, as in most of the cashiers of 1789, one cannot but be impressed by the strong sentiments of respect and devotion toward the king, whatever the critiques of the current monarchical government. Though much has been made of the “desacralization” of the kingship in late eighteenth century France, one can find only marginal evidence of such a trend among the future deputies on the eve of the Revolution,” (102). Moreover, few of the deputies presented had even considered the removal of the King from the government, rather many hoped for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

Although, this does not necessarily disprove Chartier since Tackett is dealing with a specific section of society. It is possible that desacralization of the kingship had diminished monarchial authority within the public somehow bypassing the deputies. Tackett spends little time examining the constituencies directly. Much of what Tackett presents come from the people indirectly thought the deputy or in letters sent to the Assembly from the countryside and cities. Tackett does not attempt to examine these people directly, so in this respect Tackett’s work falters. However, this clearly does not represent Tackett’s intentions, and can be considered a minor fault.

Historians such as Ran Haveli (“Estates General” in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution) argue that Enlightenment ideals such as natural rights served as a cohesive ideology for the Third Estate upon the calling of the Estates General, “Momentarily united by popular wrath, the appeal to natural rights, egalitarian demands, the Third Estate joined in the denunciation of nobles, privileges, and despotism…” (Heveli, 46). Helvi supports some of Tackett’s argument when he states, “The old monarchy played as unwitting yet undeniable part in this transition. When it resurrected an abandoned tradition after a century and a half of disuse, it established the legal and political machinery that would make possible the triumph of the Third Estate …In other words, the Revolution owed as much to the electoral regulations of January 24 as to its authors,” (Helvi, 47). However, Helvi questions the influence of tradition and custom replacing them with the Enlightenment, “The development of the economy, the spread of the Enlightenment, and the generalization of citizenship all contributed to the undermining permanence of past customs and weakening the association with previous convocations. For the government to acknowledge this before the notables was to yield to the verdict of historical reason now embodied not in the monarchy but in a new figure, sovereign and ungovernable: public opinion,” (Helvi, 48). Tackett would take issue not only with the idea of Enlightenment ideals and the removal of custom as an influence, but also with Helvi’s conception of the deputies understanding of “public opinion”. To the contrary claims Tackett, many of the deputies had varying definitions of “public opinion”, thus, according to Tackett, the deputies were unsure of public opinion’s role or even what it essentially constituted. Moreover, Helvi argues that a select group of men served to provide the Estates General with leadership, “The vacuum was filled by the new networks of power, promoters of “democratic sociability” formed in “societies of thought” on the fringes of organic society: circles, clubs, museums, patriotic societies, reading rooms, and Masonic lodges. In the theater of confrontation inaugurated by the convocation, only these groups were able to offer ‘ready made structures, phrases and men’. Only these practitioners of ‘direct democracy’ knew how to mobilize votes, ‘neutralize’ troublesome adversaries, and ‘filter’ a horde of unorganized voters,” (Helvi, 52). While Tackett agrees with the assertion that these venues and organizations gave political experience to the deputies, he describes the participation of the deputies in such pursuits more broadly and expansively. While factionalism (some of which Helvi describes) influenced both phases of the Revolution, Tackett emphasizes its effect in the second stage with the National Assembly rather than in its first within the Estates General.

According to Tackett, the second stage of the Revolution, beginning in the early summer of 1789, unfolds in a similar manner to the first in that pragmatic experience overrode abstract ideology. While the deputies no longer relied on history, custom, and tradition to guide them as Tackett asserts they did initially (within Estates General), contingent circumstances, constituency pressures, factional politics, and the new alignment of cause and effect into a “psychological” collective weighed heavily on the deputies. Thus, throughout Tackett’s explanation, concerns once again appear far more pragmatic than abstract or idealistic. The limit on executive authority occurs not through a desacralization of the monarchy or result of Rousseauian logic, but rather the results of the ensuing Great Fear, the disintegration of the royal bureaucracy, and the breakdown of law and order. Similarly, the sale of church lands occurs as much a result of state bankruptcy as it does “anti-clericalism” or irreligion.

Keith Baker provides a different argument in his essay “Constitution” (in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution). According to Baker, “Pressed by the protagonists of national sovereignty in the Rousseauian mode, the spokesmen for the constitutional committee lost the middle ground they had sought to maintain since the Assembly’s earliest debates … In the process, the ideological dynamic that was to drive subsequent revolutionary events – the insoluble problem of instituting and maintaining a from of government in direct, immediate, and constant relationship to the general will was given its force,” (485). Tackett acknowledges some Rousseauian thought within the deputies; however, Tackett clearly emphasizes the background of many of the deputies (such as commoners’ familiarity with law and education) over such abstract philosophies. Moreover, Baker continues remarking, “In their eyes [deputies], experience was represented above all by the example of England, clarified by a side glance at recent constitutional choices in America; reason was represented by arguments of Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Delolme on the one hand, Adams and Livingstone on the other,” (486). Again Tackett acknowledges some of this such as the influence of the English example, however his emphasis is placed on more pragmatic issues.

Baker places an emphasis on Sieyes’ role/thought and the deputies’ reaction to Sieyes, this contrasts with Tackett’s interpretation. Tackett discusses Sieyes occasionally, but hardly assigns him a central role. In fact, Tackett seems to disregard some of Sieyes' influence by pointing out many of the deputies’ indifference or disregard for Sieyes. Baker’s final assertion, concerning the constitutional decisions of 1789, does not necessarily agree with Tackett, “In general terms, it [Assembly] was opting for the language of political will rather than of social reason, of unity rather than of difference, of civic virtue rather than of commerce, of absolute sovereignty rather than the rights of man. Which is to say that, in the long run, it was opting for the Terror,” (493). In response, Tackett argues, “The political dialectic of action and reaction between factions … increasingly dominated life of the Assembly and added a whole new character to Revolutionary psychology. The rivalries were all the more intense in that there was a clear social character to many of the alignments, “ (311). After June 1789, constituencies exerted a greater influence over the deputies. Along with the violence of June and July, many deputies feared universal democracy. Again, pragmatic concerns are at the forefront of the deputies’ decisions, not ideological abstractions.

Timothy Tackett’s Becoming a Revolutionary explores the role of the deputies from its pre-Revolutionary stages (calling of the Estates General) to through the Revolution’s first anniversary to the summer’s end in 1790. Tackett concludes that the underlying problem preventing Revolution’s ultimate success lay in France’s relationship with the monarchy. Thus, Tackett concludes, “But the one crisis which the Revolutionaries were never able to overcome was the renunciation of the very ideal of constitutional monarchy by a substantial segment of the aristocratic elite and by the reigning monarch himself,” (313). Influenced less by enlightenment thought than by practical political experience and a basic education abounding in legalism, deputies carried out the Revolution according to these “principles”. Revolutionary thought pervaded debates but only did so in the two-fold process of establishing the Assembly and establishing a constitution. Moreover, Tackett maintains that Enlightenment thought served as justifications for new law or tradition, but not as the catalyst or guide to the deputies’ actions.

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