Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2010
After Thermidor French politics and political theory were dominated by a major challenge: namely, how to save the principle of the republic while obliterating the experience of its practical realisation. The key problem for French republicans, starting with Benjamin Constant and Germaine de Staël, was to establish a disjunction between republicanism and the Terror, or to make people forget the bloodshed associated with the establishment of the republic by appealing to the hopes and principles of 1789.
In considering, as I shall do here, the early years of the revolution, 1789–91, there is an additional difficulty, because the Constituent Assembly gave the French a government which had the form of a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic – at least in the ordinary modern sense of the two terms. Not only was representative sovereignty shared between an elected legislative assembly and an hereditary monarch, but the latter, in his capacity as head of the executive and co-legislator, was entitled to a right of veto – a right to suspend his formal sanction of laws proposed by the Assembly – for a period of four years.
Among historians of the revolution, the Constituent Assembly has never enjoyed much favour. Too moderate, and excessively bourgeois for some, it has been considered by others to have been at the true origin of the Terror. The first view, largely dominant in France until very recently, is undoubtedly closer to historical reality, at least as far as the argument about its moderation is concerned – and this in spite of the strong ideological bias common to the Jacobin and Leninist disqualification of 1789.