Barron, ATJ; Huang, J; Spang, RL; DeDeo, S

The French Revolution brought principles of "liberty, equality, fraternity" to bear on the day-to-day challenges of governing what was then the largest country in Europe. Its experiments provided a model for future revolutions and democracies across the globe, but this first modern revolution had no model to follow. Using reconstructed transcripts of debates held in the Revolution's first parliament, we present a quantitative analysis of how this body managed innovation. We use information theory to track the creation, transmission, and destruction of word-use patterns across over 40,000 speeches and a thousand speakers. The parliament as a whole was biased toward the adoption of new patterns, but speakers' individual qualities could break these overall trends. Speakers on the left innovated at higher rates, while speakers on the right acted to preserve prior patterns. Key players such as Robespierre (on the left) and Abbe Maury (on the right) played information-processing roles emblematic of their politics. Newly created organizational functions-such as the Assembly president and committee chairs-had significant effects on debate outcomes, and a distinct transition appears midway through the parliament when committees, external to the debate process, gained new powers to "propose and dispose." Taken together, these quantitative results align with existing qualitative interpretations, but also reveal crucial information-processing dynamics that have hitherto been overlooked. Great orators had the public's attention, but deputies (mostly on the political left) who mastered the committee system gained new powers to shape revolutionary legislation.