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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 23967

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Removed for a time from the scene of public life, I am constrained, in the midst of my solitude, to turn my thoughts upon myself, or rather to reflect upon contemporary events in which I have taken part or acted as a witness. And it seems to me that the best use I can make of my leisure is to retrace these events, to portray the men who took part in them under my eyes, and thus to seize and engrave, if I can, upon my memory the confused features which compose the disturbed physiognomy of my time.

In taking this resolve I have taken another, to which I shall be no less true: these recollections shall be a relaxation of the mind rather than a contribution to literature. I write them for myself alone. They shall be a mirror in which I will amuse myself in contemplating my contemporaries and myself; not a picture painted for the public. My most intimate friends shall not see them, for I wish to retain the liberty of depicting them as I shall depict myself, without flattery. I wish to arrive truly at the secret motives which have caused them, and me, and others to act; and, when discovered, to reveal them here. In a word, I wish this expression of my recollections to be a sincere one; and to effect this, it is essential that it should remain absolutely secret.

I intend that my recollections shall not go farther back than the Revolution of 1848, nor extend to a later date than the 30th of October 1849, the day upon which I resigned my office. It is only within these limits that the events which I propose to relate have any importance, or that my position has enabled me to observe them well.

My life was passed, although in a comparatively secluded fashion, in the midst of the parliamentary world of the closing years of the Monarchy of July. Nevertheless, it would be no easy task for me to recall distinctly the events of a period so little removed from the present, and yet leaving so confused a trace in my memory. The thread of my recollections is lost amid the whirl of minor incidents, of paltry ideas, of petty passions, of personal views and contradictory opinions in which the life of public men was at that time spent. All that remains vivid in my mind is the general aspect of the period; for I often regarded it with a curiosity mingled with dread, and I clearly discerned the special features by which it was characterized.

Our history from 1789 to 1830, if viewed from a distance and as a whole, affords as it were the picture of a struggle to the death between the Ancien Régime, its traditions, memories, hopes, and men, as represented by the aristocracy, and New France under the leadership of the middle class. The year 1830 closed the first period of our revolutions, or rather of our revolution: for there is but one, which has remained always the same in the face of varying fortunes, of which our fathers witnessed the commencement, and of which we, in all probability, shall not live to behold the end. In 1830 the triumph of the middle class had been definite and so thorough that all political power, every franchise, every prerogative, and the whole government was confined and, as it were, heaped up within the narrow limits of this one class, to the statutory exclusion of all beneath them and the actual exclusion of all above. Not only did it thus alone rule society, but it may be said to have formed it. It ensconced itself in every vacant place, prodigiously augmented the number of places, and accustomed itself to live almost as much upon the Treasury as upon its own industry.

No sooner had the Revolution of 1830 become an accomplished fact, than there ensued a great lull in political passion, a sort of general subsidence, accompanied by a rapid increase in the public wealth. The particular spirit of the middle class became the general spirit of the government; it ruled the latter's foreign policy as well as affairs at home: an active, industrious spirit, often dishonourable, generally sober, occasionally reckless through vanity or egoism, but timid by temperament, moderate in all things, except in its love of ease and comfort, and wholly undistinguished. It was a spirit which, mingled with that of the people or of the aristocracy, can do wonders; but which, by itself, will never produce more than a government shorn of both virtue and greatness. Master of everything in a manner that no aristocracy had ever been or may ever hope to be, the middle class, when called upon to assume the government, took it up as a trade; it entrenched itself behind its power, and before long, in their egoism, each of its members thought much more of his private business than of public affairs, and of his personal enjoyment than of the greatness of the nation.

Posterity, which sees none but the more dazzling crimes, and which loses sight, in general, of mere vices, will never, perhaps, know to what extent the government of that day, towards its close, assumed the ways of a trading company, which conducts all its transactions with a view to the profits accruing to the shareholders. These vices were due to the natural instincts of the dominant class, to the absoluteness of its power, and also to the character of the time. Possibly also King Louis-Philippe had contributed to their growth.

This Prince was a singular medley of qualities, and one must have known him longer and more nearly than I did to be able to portray him in detail.

Nevertheless, although I was never one of his Council, I have frequently had occasion to come into contact with him. The last time that I spoke to him was shortly before the catastrophe of February. I was then director of the Académie Fran?aise, and I had to bring to the King's notice some matter or other which concerned that body. After treating the question which had brought me, I was about to retire, when the King detained me, took a chair, motioned me to another, and said, affably:

"Since you are here, Monsieur de Tocqueville, let us talk; I want to hear you talk a little about America."

I knew him well enough to know that this meant: I shall talk about America myself. And he did actually talk of it at great length and very searchingly: it was not possible for me, nor did I desire, to get in a word, for he really interested me. He described places as though he saw them before him; he recalled the distinguished men whom he had met forty years ago as though he had seen them the day before; he mentioned their names in full, Christian name and surname, gave their ages at the time, related their histories, their pedigrees, their posterity, with marvellous exactness and with infinite, though in no way tedious, detail. From America he returned, without taking breath, to Europe, talked of all our foreign and domestic affairs with incredible unconstraint (for I had no title to his confidence), spoke very badly of the Emperor of Russia, whom he called "Monsieur Nicolas," casually alluded to Lord Palmerston as a rogue, and ended by holding forth at length on the Spanish marriages, which had just taken place, and the annoyances to which they subjected him on the side of England.

"The Queen is very angry with me," he said, "and displays great irritation; but, after all," he added, "all this outcry won't keep me from driving my own cart."[2]

Although this phrase dated back to the Old Order, I felt inclined to doubt whether Louis XIV. ever made use of it on accepting the Spanish Succession. I believe, moreover, that Louis-Philippe was mistaken, and, to borrow his own language, that the Spanish marriage helped not a little to upset his cart.

After three-quarters of an hour, the King rose, thanked me for the pleasure my conversation had given him (I had not spoken four words), and dismissed me, feeling evidently as delighted as one generally is with a man before whom one thinks one has spoken well. This was my last audience of the King.

Louis-Philippe improvised all the replies which he made, even upon the most critical occasions, to the great State bodies; he was as fluent then as in his private conversation, although not so happy or epigrammatic. He would suddenly become obscure, for the reason that he boldly plunged headlong into long sentences, of which he was not able to estimate the extent nor perceive the end beforehand, and from which he finally emerged struggling and by force, shattering the sense, and not completing the thought.

In this political world thus constituted and conducted, what was most wanting, particularly towards the end, was political life itself. It could neither come into being nor be maintained within the legal circle which the Constitution had traced for it: the old aristocracy was vanquished, the people excluded. As all business was discussed among members of one class, in the interest and in the spirit of that class, there was no battle-field for contending parties to meet upon. This singular homogeneity of position, of interests, and consequently of views, reigning in what M. Guizot had once called the legal country, deprived the parliamentary debates of all originality, of all reality, and therefore of all genuine passion. I have spent ten years of my life in the company of truly great minds, who were in a constant state of agitation without succeeding in heating themselves, and who spent all their perspicacity in vain endeavours to find subjects upon which they could seriously disagree.

On the other hand, the preponderating influence which King Louis-Philippe had acquired in public affairs, which never permitted the politicians to stray very far from that Prince's ideas, lest they should at the same time be removed from power, reduced the different colours of parties to the merest shades, and debates to the splitting of straws. I doubt whether any parliament (not excepting the Constituent Assembly, I mean the true one, that of 1789) ever contained more varied and brilliant talents than did ours during the closing years of the Monarchy of July. Nevertheless, I am able to declare that these great orators were tired to death of listening to one another, and, what was worse, the whole country was tired of listening to them. It grew unconsciously accustomed to look upon the debates in the Chambers as exercises of the intellect rather than as serious discussions, and upon all the differences between the various parliamentary parties-the majority, the left centre, or the dynastic opposition-as domestic quarrels between children of one family trying to trick one another. A few glaring instances of corruption, discovered by accident, led it to presuppose a number of hidden cases, and convinced it that the whole of the governing class was corrupt; whence it conceived for the latter a silent contempt, which was generally taken for confiding and contented submission.

The country was at that time divided into two unequal parts, or rather zones: in the upper, which alone was intended to contain the whole of the nation's political life, there reigned nothing but languor, impotence, stagnation, and boredom; in the lower, on the contrary, political life began to make itself manifest by means of feverish and irregular signs, of which the attentive observer was easily able to seize the meaning.

I was one of these observers; and although I was far from imagining that the catastrophe was so near at hand and fated to be so terrible, I felt a distrust springing up and insensibly growing in my mind, and the idea taking root more and more that we were making strides towards a fresh revolution. This denoted a great change in my thoughts; since the general appeasement and flatness that followed the Revolution of July had led me to believe for a long time that I was destined to spend my life amid an enervated and peaceful society. Indeed, anyone who had only examined the inside of the governmental fabric would have had the same conviction. Everything there seemed combined to produce with the machinery of libert

y a preponderance of royal power which verged upon despotism; and, in fact, this result was produced almost without effort by the regular and tranquil movement of the machine. King Louis-Philippe was persuaded that, so long as he did not himself lay hand upon that fine instrument, and allowed it to work according to rule, he was safe from all peril. His only occupation was to keep it in order, and to make it work according to his own views, forgetful of society, upon which this ingenious piece of mechanism rested; he resembled the man who refused to believe that his house was on fire, because he had the key in his pocket. I had neither the same interests nor the same cares, and this permitted me to see through the mechanism of institutions and the agglomeration of petty every-day facts, and to observe the state of morals and opinions in the country. There I clearly beheld the appearance of several of the portents that usually denote the approach of revolutions, and I began to believe that in 1830 I had taken for the end of the play what was nothing more than the end of an act.

A short unpublished document which I composed at the time, and a speech which I delivered early in 1848, will bear witness to these preoccupations of my mind.

A number of my friends in Parliament met together in October 1847, to decide upon the policy to be adopted during the ensuing session. It was agreed that we should issue a programme in the form of a manifesto, and the task of drawing it up was deputed to me. Later, the idea of this publication was abandoned, but I had already written the document. I have discovered it among my papers, and I give the following extracts. After commenting on the symptoms of languor in Parliament, I continued:

"... The time will come when the country will find itself once again divided between two great parties. The French Revolution, which abolished all privileges and destroyed all exclusive rights, has allowed one to remain, that of landed property. Let not the landlords deceive themselves as to the strength of their position, nor think that the rights of property form an insurmountable barrier because they have not as yet been surmounted; for our times are unlike any others. When the rights of property were merely the origin and commencement of a number of other rights, they were easily defended, or rather, they were never attacked; they then formed the surrounding wall of society, of which all other rights were the outposts; no blows reached them; no serious attempt was ever made to touch them. But to-day, when the rights of property are nothing more than the last remnants of an overthrown aristocratic world; when they alone are left intact, isolated privileges amid the universal levelling of society; when they are no longer protected behind a number of still more controversible and odious rights, the case is altered, and they alone are left daily to resist the direct and unceasing shock of democratic opinion....

"... Before long, the political struggle will be restricted to those who have and those who have not; property will form the great field of battle; and the principal political questions will turn upon the more or less important modifications to be introduced into the rights of landlords. We shall then have once more among us great public agitations and great political parties.

"How is it that these premonitory symptoms escape the general view? Can anyone believe that it is by accident, through some passing whim of the human brain, that we see appearing on every side these curious doctrines, bearing different titles, but all characterized in their essence by their denial of the rights of property, and all tending, at least, to limit, diminish, and weaken the exercise of these rights? Who can fail here to recognise the final symptom of the old democratic disease of the time, whose crisis would seem to be at hand?"

I was still more urgent and explicit in the speech which I delivered in the Chamber of Deputies on the 29th of January 1848, and which appeared in the Moniteur of the 30th.

I quote the principal passages:

"... I am told that there is no danger because there are no riots; I am told that, because there is no visible disorder on the surface of society, there is no revolution at hand.

"Gentlemen, permit me to say that I believe you are deceived. True, there is no actual disorder; but it has entered deeply into men's minds. See what is passing in the breasts of the working classes, who, I grant, are at present quiet. No doubt they are not disturbed by political passion, properly so-called, to the same extent that they have been; but can you not see that their passions, instead of political, have become social? Do you not see that there are gradually forming in their breasts opinions and ideas which are destined not only to upset this or that law, ministry, or even form of government, but society itself, until it totters upon the foundations on which it rests to-day? Do you not listen to what they say to themselves each day? Do you not hear them repeating unceasingly that all that is above them is incapable and unworthy of governing them; that the present distribution of goods throughout the world is unjust; that property rests on a foundation which is not an equitable foundation? And do you not realize that when such opinions take root, when they spread in an almost universal manner, when they sink deeply into the masses, they are bound to bring with them sooner or later, I know not when nor how, a most formidable revolution?

"This, gentlemen, is my profound conviction: I believe that we are at this moment sleeping on a volcano. I am profoundly convinced of it....

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"... I was saying just now that this evil would, sooner or later, I know not how nor whence it will come, bring with it a most serious revolution: be assured that that is so.

"When I come to investigate what, at different times, in different periods, among different peoples, has been the effective cause that has brought about the downfall of the governing classes, I perceive this or that event, man, or accidental or superficial cause; but, believe me, the real reason, the effective reason which causes men to lose their power is, that they have become unworthy to retain it.

"Think, gentlemen, of the old Monarchy: it was stronger than you are, stronger in its origin; it was able to lean more than you do upon ancient customs, ancient habits, ancient beliefs; it was stronger than you are, and yet it has fallen to dust. And why did it fall? Do you think it was by some particular mischance? Do you think it was by the act of some man, by the deficit, the oath in the Tennis Court, La Fayette, Mirabeau? No, gentlemen; there was another reason: the class that was then the governing class had become, through its indifference, its selfishness and its vices, incapable and unworthy of governing the country.

"That was the true reason.

"Well, gentlemen, if it is right to have this patriotic prejudice at all times, how much more is it not right to have it in our own? Do you not feel, by some intuitive instinct which is not capable of analysis, but which is undeniable, that the earth is quaking once again in Europe? Do you not feel ... what shall I say? ... as it were a gale of revolution in the air? This gale, no one knows whence it springs, whence it blows, nor, believe me, whom it will carry with it; and it is in such times as these that you remain calm before the degradation of public morality-for the expression is not too strong.

"I speak without bitterness; I am even addressing you without any party spirit; I am attacking men against whom I feel no vindictiveness. But I am obliged to communicate to my country my firm and decided conviction. Well then, my firm and decided conviction is this: that public morality is being degraded, and that the degradation of public morality will shortly, very shortly, perhaps, bring down upon you a new revolution. Is the life of kings held by stronger threads? Are these more difficult to snap than those of other men? Can you say to-day that you are certain of to-morrow? Do you know what may happen in France a year hence, or even a month or a day hence? You do not know; but what you must know is that the tempest is looming on the horizon, that it is coming towards us. Will you allow it to take you by surprise?

"Gentlemen, I implore you not to do so. I do not ask you, I implore you. I would gladly throw myself on my knees before you, so strongly do I believe in the reality and the seriousness of the danger, so convinced am I that my warnings are no empty rhetoric. Yes, the danger is great. Allay it while there is yet time; correct the evil by efficacious remedies, by attacking it not in its symptoms but in itself.

"Legislative changes have been spoken of. I am greatly disposed to think that these changes are not only very useful, but necessary; thus, I believe in the need of electoral reform, in the urgency of parliamentary reform; but I am not, gentlemen, so mad as not to know that no laws can affect the destinies of nations. No, it is not the mechanism of laws that produces great events, gentlemen, but the inner spirit of the government. Keep the laws as they are, if you wish. I think you would be very wrong to do so; but keep them. Keep the men, too, if it gives you any pleasure. I raise no objection so far as I am concerned. But, in God's name, change the spirit of the government; for, I repeat, that spirit will lead you to the abyss."[3]

These gloomy predictions were received with ironical cheers from the majority. The Opposition applauded loudly, but more from party feeling than conviction. The truth is that no one as yet believed seriously in the danger which I was prophesying, although we were so near the catastrophe. The inveterate habit contracted by all the politicians, during this long parliamentary farce, of over-colouring the expression of their opinions and grossly exaggerating their thoughts had deprived them of all power of appreciating what was real and true. For several years the majority had every day been declaring that the Opposition was imperilling society; and the Opposition repeated incessantly that the Ministers were ruining the Monarchy. These statements had been made so constantly on both sides, without either side greatly believing in them, that they ended by not believing in them at all, at the very moment when the event was about to justify both of them. Even my own friends themselves thought that I had overshot the mark, and that my facts were a little blurred by rhetoric.

I remember that, when I stepped from the tribune, Dufaure took me on one side, and said, with that sort of parliamentary intuition which is his only note of genius:

"You have succeeded, but you would have succeeded much more if you had not gone so far beyond the feeling of the Assembly and tried to frighten us."

And now that I am face to face with myself, searching in my memory to discover whether I was actually myself so much alarmed as I seemed, the answer is no, and I readily recognise that the event justified me more promptly and more completely than I foresaw (a thing which may sometimes have happened to other political prophets, better authorized to predict than I was). No, I did not expect such a revolution as we were destined to have; and who could have expected it? I did, I believe, perceive more clearly than the others the general causes which were making for the event; but I did not observe the accidents which were to precipitate it. Meantime the days which still separated us from the catastrophe passed rapidly by.


[2] "Mener mon fiacre": to drive my hackney-coach.-A.T. de M.

[3] This speech was delivered in the Chamber of Deputies on the 27th of January 1848, in the debate on the Address in reply to the Speech from the Throne.-Cte. de T.

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