France before 1789The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime

France before 1789The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime

Jon Elster

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9780691149813

Publisher: Princeton University Press


This book traces the historical origins of France's National Constituent Assembly of 1789, providing a vivid portrait of the ancien régime and its complex social system in the decades before the French Revolution. The book's author writes in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, who described this tumultuous era with an eye toward individual and group psychology and the functioning of institutions. Whereas Tocqueville saw the old regime as a breeding ground for revolution, the author, more specifically, identifies the rural and urban conflicts that fueled the constitution-making process from 1789 to 1791. The book presents a new approach to history writing, one that supplements the historian's craft with the tools and insights of modern social science. It draws on important French and Anglo-American scholarship as well as a treasure trove of historical evidence from the period, such as the Memoirs of Saint-Simon, the letters of Madame de Sévigné, the journals of the lawyer Barbier and the bookseller Hardy, the Remonstrances of Malesherbes, and La Bruyère's maxims. The book is the first volume of a trilogy that promises to transform our understanding of constitution making in the eighteenth century.