Today the terms “left wing” and “right wing” are used as symbolic labels for liberals and conservatives, but they were originally coined in reference to the physical seating arrangements of politicians during the French Revolution.
The split dates to the summer of 1789, when members of the French National Assembly met to begin drafting a constitution. The delegates were deeply divided over the issue of how much authority King Louis XVI should have, and as the debate raged, the two main factions each staked out territory in the assembly hall. The anti-royalist revolutionaries seated themselves to the presiding officer’s left, while the more conservative, aristocratic supporters of the monarchy gathered to the right.
“I tried to sit in different parts of the hall and not to adopt any marked spot, so as to remain more the master of my opinion,” one right-wing baron wrote, “but I was compelled absolutely to abandon the left or else be condemned always to vote alone and thus be subjected to jeers from the galleries.”
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The divisions only continued during the 1790s, when newspapers began making reference to the progressive “left” and traditionalist “right” of the French assembly. The distinctions later vanished for several years during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, but with the Bourbon Restoration and the beginning of a constitutional monarchy in 1814, liberal and conservative representatives once again took up their respective posts on the left and right of the legislative chamber. By the mid-19th century, “left” and “right” had entered the French vernacular as shorthand for opposing political ideologies. Political parties even began self-identifying as “center left,” “center right,” “extreme left” and “extreme right.”
France’s “left” and “right” labels filtered out to the rest of the world during the 1800s, but they weren’t common in English-speaking countries until the early 20th century. The terms are now used to describe the opposing ends of the political spectrum, but their origins are still evident in the seating arrangements of many legislative bodies. In the U.S. Congress, for example, Democrats and Republicans traditionally sit on opposite sides of the House and Senate chambers.