The word “gerrymander” is American, coined to describe the strange salamander-shaped congressional district carved by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and his party to deliver an electoral advantage in 1812. Today, parties controlling state legislatures have used gerrymandering, refined with computing technology, to dilute the political efficacy of voters from the opposing party.
While gerrymandering may be uniquely American, the dynamics underlying the practice — in which purportedly representative political institutions are, in fact, anything but — have been found throughout history. The resulting political inequality can be more destabilizing to a government than outright repression or economic misery. Nowhere do we see this more clearly or profoundly than in France, where the practice provoked a revolution.
While we don’t usually connect the French Revolution or Bastille Day to American gerrymandering, we should. If political institutions come to be seen as unfair, and lose their legitimacy as they did in 18th-century France, change will come about by other, more dramatic, means. Today, as Americans lose faith in their political institutions and democracy, the prospect of more revolutionary change should loom large in compelling us to reform our institutions before it is too late.
In 17th- and 18th-century France, the king enjoyed absolute rule. While a structure for political representation — the so-called Estates-General — existed, that body had not met since 1614. Kings theoretically ruled on the basis of “Divine Right,” or the idea that they were appointed by God, but their power in this period practically depended on weakening the nobility who, historically, exercised enormous local influence. Building a modern, centralized government, and especially the standing army and navy that were its key attributes, was costly — a problem when these noblemen were exempt from paying nearly all taxes.
Throughout the 18th century, France’s kings attempted (and largely failed) to tax the vast wealth of this class. In the 1770s and 1780s, aristocrats effectively resisted the monarchy’s latest plan for universal taxation by dismissing it as “despotism."
Thwarted in attempts to tax the rich and facing both a budget shortfall and political standoff, King Louis XVI agreed to convene the Estates-General. All across France, assemblies of the country’s three social “estates” (status groups into which France’s population was divided) met to select their representatives. The First Estate — as Roman Catholic clergymen were called because they were closest to God — chose a combination of bishops, archbishops and parish priests. The Second Estate, or nobility, was overwhelmingly represented by its wealthiest, titled members such as princes and dukes. Everyone else from landless peasants to urban artisans and wealthy merchants fell into the Third Estate.
The king and his advisers insisted the Estates-General follow the format and the procedures established in 1614, which were badly out of date. It was the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives deciding today to elect members on the basis of laws from 175 years ago — which would mean women not voting; California, Michigan, Florida and 23 other states having no representatives, and race being legal grounds for denying suffrage.
This structure would be badly out of sync with social realities and Americans would howl — which is what happened in France in 1789. A famous pamphlet called “What is the Third Estate?” argued for more fair representation to reflect the current conditions. But reactionary aristocrats replied “all these new proposals should be forever outlawed and time-honored arrangements maintained” — as if nothing had happened over the previous 200 years.
Amid this activism, the monarchy grudgingly agreed to double the number of representatives elected by the Third Estate. But this concession did little to dilute the outsized power of the two more privileged groups, representing at most 5 percent of France’s population. They could always join forces to outvote the commoners. While many ordinary parish clergy had as much in common with the Third Estate as they did with ecclesiastical elites, it was widely expected that the Church’s tax-exempt status meant the First and Second Estates would always vote together.
Many of those elected as delegates of the Third Estate therefore simply refused to take part in this rigged system. Sent to their separate meeting room to verify membership, elect a presiding officer and begin their discussions of how best to raise funds and revive France, they stalled. One morning, they found they had been locked out of their usual meeting place. Certain this was a sign the whole body was about to be dissolved with military force, they hastily met instead at an empty tennis court, where they declared themselves to be a “National Assembly” — not representatives of the Third Estate alone, but of the nation as a whole.
The delegates quickly found it is one thing to call yourself a “National Assembly,” another to be recognized as such. The king met with them, but at the insistence of conservative nobles, he still addressed them as “the Third Estate,” and commanded they vote as such.
Several weeks later, on July 14, a crowd in Paris stormed the Bastille Prison. Their concerns were not identical to those of the newly self-styled National Assembly and many assembly delegates were, in fact, initially terrified when they heard of the “uprising” and “mutiny” in Paris. But the reactionaries made a crucial error, responding as they had to the declaration by the Third Estate delegates: with intransigence and hostility. This reaction convinced many of the National Assembly members to embrace the idea that the crowd’s action was a show of “popular sovereignty.”
With the suturing together of these two developments — the demand for legitimate representation and the threat of popular violence — the French Revolution was born.
The men elected to represent the Third Estate in 1789 had been lawyers, merchants, physicians, wealthy farmers, even noblemen and slave dealers — not people with obvious motives for disturbing the status quo. But they became revolutionaries when they saw that supposedly representative institutions were corrupt and reactionaries blocked all efforts to reform them.
The social groups that did most to prompt Louis XVI’s calling of the Estates-General — the aristocrats, magistrates and high ecclesiastical officials who believed their privileged standing should exempt them from taxation — had very little to gain from revolution. In the 1770s and 1780s, they nonetheless had defended their privileges by inviting ordinary French men and women to see them as fellow brave opponents of governmental “tyranny.” Having unleashed the genie of populist politics, they discovered in 1789 that they could not control it.
A revolution is not a single event but a process, one driven in 1790s France as much by opposition to needed reform as it was by demands for a particular ideological system. The French Revolutionaries were not Russian Bolsheviks: They did not dream of revolution in advance and many came to regret their involvement. Nonetheless, in 1789, many comfortable men and women concluded that the society they had always known needed to be overturned and completely transformed. Reactionaries, who would never agree to more incremental changes, played a major part in radicalizing them.
On this Bastille Day, Americans should take note of this history. The Supreme Court’s recent decision that the federal courts cannot adjudicate or limit partisan gerrymandering should give us all pause; wielded with modern technical precision, this practice is massively anti-democratic, and apt to leave Americans feeling powerless to change things by working through routine political channels. The entire system is at risk of being discredited. People across the country today have urgent and competing grievances and concerns, but the institutions that are meant to adjudicate those differences are every day losing more and more of their legitimacy. If a way cannot be found to restore trust in our shared institutions, the 18th-century case suggests change will come through other means.