Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 November 2009
In June 1789 deputies at the Estates General seized power and, in the name of the people, proclaimed a new parliament, the National or Constituent Assembly. This declaration of popular sovereignty placed the issue of who should vote, and how they should do so, at the heart of the political agenda. The prospect of direct democracy had been raised in 1789, but it was generally acknowledged that the size of the country necessitated a representative system of some sort. The sovereignty of the people was accordingly translated into the election of legislators and administrators. The intricacies of the franchise question provoked some acrimonious debate in the Assembly between 1789 and 1791 for, as Montesquieu had remarked, ‘the laws which establish the right of suffrage are fundamental to any state’. The conflict over restrictive measures has, however, been misconstrued by many historians, while their impact and application also require a comprehensive reassessment.
In a report which he presented to the newly created Comité de Constitution, towards the end of July 1789, the influential abbé Sievès suggested drawing a distinction between ‘active citizens’, who would vote and ‘passive citizens’, who would not.