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  • The French Revolution and the Birth of Electoral Democracy by Melvin Edelstein
  • Jeff Horn
The French Revolution and the Birth of Electoral Democracy. By Melvin Edelstein. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. xvi + 365 pp.

Melvin Edelstein’s long-promised monograph on elections during the French Revolution is worth the wait. By synthesizing decades of archival research and the results of his numerous articles on various aspects of Revolutionary elections and electoral culture, Edelstein has produced a work of lasting value. Like many (but certainly not all) other historians, he identifies the cantonal elections of 1790 as the birth of electoral democracy (p. 132). Revolutionary elections are located succinctly into both a longer-term understanding of electoral democracy and contemporary practice in England and the United States. Edelstein spends much of the book criticizing the work of Patrice Gueniffey (for example, Le Nombre et la raison: la révolution française et les élections (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 1993)) and testing various arguments made by Malcolm Crook (Elections in the French Revolution: An Apprenticeship in Democracy, 1789–1799 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)) and by Lynn Hunt (Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)). That the most recent of these works appeared in 1996 is telling. Edelstein has certainly read what has been published in the intervening years, but by situating his work rather narrowly within the subspeciality of elections, he has missed an opportunity to make a broader historiographical case for the importance of elections more generally to democracy and especially in the comparative study of revolutions. Edelstein did make some effort to explore such issues by repeatedly considering ‘community’ and ‘mobilization’ models to explain or understand electoral behaviour (he largely comes out in favour of the former), a subject he began to consider more than twenty years ago. As the expert on the elections of 1790–1791, Edelstein’s findings are of tremendous value. I cannot imagine anyone with the stamina to replicate, much less surpass, his archival mastery. However, it must be noted that the archival basis of his investigation of other elections is (admittedly) restricted to his case studies of the départements of the Landes and Côte-d’Or. The rest of the work is based on the rather idiosyncratic use of secondary sources. Two-thirds of the book examines the elections of 1790–1791, which is a restricted approach to ‘the birth of electoral democracy’ during the French Revolution. That critique, however, does not undermine the worth of Edelstein’s reconstruction of the context, culture, and results of those pivotal two years, often referred to as ‘the golden age of voting’. Historians will be grateful that Melvin Edelstein has published his magnum opus. He provides a wealth of information, demonstrates the limits of the evidence, and draws reasonable, comparative conclusions that shed considerable light on the origins of electoral democracy in the French Revolution and beyond. [End Page 251]

Jeff Horn
Manhattan College


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