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Where Do the Terms "Left" and "Right" Come from?

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

Are you Left-leaning or Right-leaning? Are you Liberal or Conservative? Are those two questions even related? The origins of the terms "Left" and "Right" in the context of political vocabulary are not very well known.

The origins of the Left and Right wings of politics can be traced back to France in 1789. This was a time of great upheaval for the nation, as it was undergoing a revolution. King Louis XVI of France was experiencing some serious economic troubles due to a series of costly wars and poor business decisions made by his predecessor, Louis XV. With bankers unwilling to provide him with the loans he needed, he was forced to summon an ancient semi-representative body called the États-Généraux or, in English, the Estates-General. This assembly of representatives quickly flew out of Louis' control, and eventually went on to call for great reform of the current absolutist system and founded what is known today as the National Assembly.

The National Assembly had basically decided to ignore the king's authority and impose a constitution on him against his will. However, there was great debate as to what the French constitution would entail. It was here in the National Assembly that the Left and Right wings of politics began to take shape.

You see, not everyone in the National Assembly sought great reform. Many just wanted minor reforms and changes to the current system. These people were known as more conservative or opposed to change and were oftentimes nobles and members of the upper class. Opposing these conservatives were people who were more liberal-minded, many of which wanted to tear down their current system entirely. The people who were most radically liberal, or "Left" became known as the Jacobins.

So why were the conservative nobles being labeled as "Right" while the liberal Jacobins were being labeled as "Left"? The answer is simple. It was a matter of where they sat.

As these opposing parties began to form, members of the assembly who held similar viewpoints began congregating together in the assembly hall. Eventually, the assembly was set up in such a way that the entire political spectrum could be observed by the president of the assembly as he looked from left to right, with the assembly becoming progressively less liberal as his gaze drifted right.

Media outlets all across France began referring to where the competing factions both literally and figuratively stood. To the left, or to the right. This practice slowly began to be adopted by nations all across the globe, including the United States.

Today, Liberals in the United States are broadly for reform of our current system, while Conservatives fight to preserve what we have, and sometimes even fight to undo some reforms that have been enacted in the past by Liberals before them.

Not everything in history is complicated. Sometimes, precedents can be set even by the simplest of things. People at the time didn't know it, but their simple decision to sit at opposite ends of the assembly hall would help shape world politics forever.

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