Stupid Question ™
May 4, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: Why are the political extremes in both the US and Britain called the “Left” and the “Right”?
A: The equation of liberals with the “Left” and conservatives with the “Right”—common in most of Europe as well as Britain and the US—comes from France’s 1789 National Assembly, the formation of which effectively began the French Revolution.
It’s certain that “left” and “right” referred to groups of delegates sitting either to the left or right of the president’s chair (that is, to his left or right as he sat facing the room).
But it’s not clear exactly how the Côté Gauche (“Left Side”) and the Côté Droit (“Right Side”) came to have political meaning.
Some authors say it stems from the old Western tradition of seating favored persons on the right side of the host. (Where that comes from is a whole other story.)
Vague evidence for this is the Estates-General that preceded the National Assembly. This involved representatives of the public coming before the king, with the “First Estate” (the clergy) on his right, the “Second Estate” (the nobles) on the left, and the “Third Estate” (commoners) in the back of the room.
Radical commoners, along with a few sympathetic nobles and clergy, unilaterally founded the National Assembly in 1789. The king soon legalized the Assembly, at which point the other nobles joined. According to the “position of honor” theory, they were seated on the right. Since nobles were mostly conservative, and commoners mostly radical, the right and left seating came to have political meaning.
But other authors say “honor” had nothing to do with it, and that representatives just naturally grouped themselves into factions. The conservatives happened to wind up on the right side of the room, and the liberals on the left, and political symbolism followed. This theory had the advantage of explaining why there was also a “Centrist” faction, which could have little to do with either seating practices or social class.
These theories are not mutually exclusive, though the second one has more sense and evidence behind it. In any case, the National Assembly was a perfect place for such bipolar political terms to be invented—it was the country’s only legislative body, crammed into a single room, and fraught with deep political divisions.
Later, the assemblies of Europe’s new democracies often seated delegates on the right or left according to political beliefs in imitation of France.
Political “left” and “right” entered English as early as 1825, but truly became popular thanks to British historian Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 history of the French Revolution.