Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 November 2009
During the Revolution only municipal personnel and justices of the peace were directly elected to their posts. National deputies, like departmental officials and district administrators (until their suppression in 1795), were chosen at electoral colleges by second-degree electors who emanated from primary assemblies in the cantons. This indirect route to high office was a procedure retained from the ancien régime, exemplified by the successive stages of election to the Estates General in 1789. It was, above all, a means of vesting real power in the hands of a political elite which, even in the absence of a fiscal threshold in 1792, was drawn predominantly from wealthier elements of the broad electorate. The relatively small secondary assemblies in the departments were clearly the fulcrum of electoral authority in revolutionary France. Government officials and contenders for higher office alike were especially concerned to secure a favourable outcome at this level. Yet, despite the existence of a good deal of accessible documentation, these all-important departmental colleges have received surprisingly little attention from historians; much remains to be done, as this exploratory survey will suggest.
Departmental assemblies were created on seven occasions during the revolutionary decade, in 1790, 1791, 1792, 1795, 1797, 1798 and 1799. They ranged in size from less than 200 to almost 1,000 members, reflecting the total of enfranchised citizens in each department: the Pyrénées-Orientales hosted the smallest, while the Seine (usually referred to as Paris) housed the largest assembly. In 1790 and 1791 one second-degree elector was awarded for every 100 ayant droit de voter residing in the canton, regardless of actual turnout. In 1792 the total of electors remained static, notwithstanding an extension of the franchise, because there was no time to compile new voter lists.