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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 19522

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

I refused to take part in the affair of the banquets. I had both serious and petty reasons for abstaining. What I call my petty reasons I am quite willing to describe as bad reasons, although they were consistent with honour, and would have been unexceptionable in a private matter. They were the irritation and disgust aroused in me by the character and by the tactics of the leaders of this enterprise. Nevertheless, I confess that the private prejudice which we entertain with regard to individuals is a bad guide in politics.

A close alliance had at that time been effected between M. Thiers and M. Barrot, and a real fusion formed between the two sections of the Opposition, which, in our parliamentary jargon, we called the Left Centre and the Left. Almost all the stubborn and intractable spirits which were found in the latter party had successively been softened, unbent, subjugated, made supple, by the promises of place spread broadcast by M. Thiers. I believe that even M. Barrot had for the first time allowed himself not exactly to be won over, but surprised, by arguments of this kind. At any rate, the most complete intimacy reigned between the two great leaders of the Opposition, whatever was the cause of it, and M. Barrot, who likes to mingle a little simplicity with his weaknesses as well as with his virtues, exerted himself to his utmost to secure the triumph of his ally, even at his own expense. M. Thiers had allowed him to involve himself in this matter of the banquets; I even think that he had instigated Barrot in that direction without consenting to involve himself. He was willing to accept the results, but not the responsibilities, of that dangerous agitation. Wherefore, surrounded by his personal friends, he stayed mute and motionless in Paris, while Barrot travelled all over the country for three months, making long speeches in every town he stopped at, and resembling, in my opinion, those beaters who make a great noise in order to bring the game within easy range of the sportsman's gun. Personally, I felt no inclination to take part in the sport. But the principal and more serious reason which restrained me was this: and I expounded it pretty often to those who wanted to drag me to those political meetings:

"For the first time for eighteen years," I used to tell them, "you are proposing to appeal to the people, and to seek support outside the middle class. If you fail in rousing the people (and I think this will be the most probable result), you will become still more odious than you already are in the eyes of the Government and of the middle classes, who for a great part support it. In this way you will strengthen the administration which you desire to upset; while if, on the contrary, you succeed in rousing the people, you are no more able than I am to foresee whither an agitation of this kind will lead you."

In the measure that the campaign of the banquets was prolonged, the latter hypothesis became, contrary to my expectation, the more probable. A certain anxiety began to oppress the ringleaders themselves; an indefinite anxiety, passing vaguely through their minds. I was told by Beaumont, who was at that time one of the first among them, that the excitement occasioned in the country by the banquets surpassed not only the hopes, but the wishes, of those who had started it. The latter were labouring to allay rather than increase it. Their intention was that there should be no banquet in Paris, and that there should be none held anywhere after the assembling of the Chambers. The fact is that they were only seeking a way out of the mischievous road which they had entered upon. And it was undoubtedly in spite of them that this final banquet was resolved on; they were constrained to take part in it, drawn into it; their vanity was compromised. The Government, by its defiance, goaded the Opposition into adopting this dangerous measure, thinking thus to drive it to destruction. The Opposition let itself be caught in a spirit of bravado, and lest it should be suspected of retreating; and thus irritating each other, spurring one another on, they dragged each other towards the common abyss, which neither of them as yet perceived.

I remember that two days before the Revolution of February, at the Turkish Ambassador's ball, I met Duvergier de Hauranne. I felt for him both friendship and esteem; although he possessed very nearly all the failings that arise from party spirit, he at least joined to them the sort of disinterestedness and sincerity which one meets with in genuine passions, two rare advantages in our day, when the only genuine passion is that of self. I said to him, with the familiarity warranted by our relations:

"Courage, my friend; you are playing a dangerous game."

He replied gravely, but with no sign of fear:

"Believe me, all will end well; besides, one must risk something. There is no free government that has not had to go through a similar experience."

This reply perfectly describes this determined but somewhat narrow character; narrow, I say, although with plenty of brain, but with the brain which, while seeing clearly and in detail all that is on the horizon, is incapable of conceiving that the horizon may change; scholarly, disinterested, ardent, vindictive, sprung from that learned and sectarian race which guides itself in politics by imitation of others and by historical recollection, and which restricts its thought to one sole idea, at which it warms, in which it blinds itself.

For the rest, the Government were even less uneasy than the leaders of the Opposition. A few days before the above conversation, I had had another with Duchatel, the Minister of the Interior. I was on good terms with this minister, although for the last eight years I had been very boldly (even too boldly, I confess, in the case of its foreign policy) attacking the Cabinet of which he was one of the principal members. I am not sure that this fault did not even make me find favour in his eyes, for I believe that at the bottom of his heart he had a sneaking fondness for those who attacked his colleague at the Foreign Office, M. Guizot. A battle which M. Duchatel and I had fought some years before in favour of the penitentiary system had brought us together and given rise to a certain intimacy between us. This man was very unlike the one I mentioned above: he was as heavy in his person and his manners as the other was meagre, angular, and sometimes trenchant and bitter. He was as remarkable for his scepticism as the other for his ardent convictions, for flabby indifference as the former for feverish activity; he possessed a very supple, very quick, very subtle mind enclosed in a massive body; he understood business admirably, while pretending to be above it; he was thoroughly acquainted with the evil passions of mankind, and especially with the evil passions of his party, and always knew how to turn them to advantage. He was free from all rancour and prejudice, cordial in his address, easy of approach, obliging, whenever his own interests were not compromised, and bore a kindly contempt for his fellow-creatures.

I was about to say that, some days before the catastrophe, I drew M. Duchatel into a corner of the conference room, and observed to him that the Government and the Opposition seemed to be striving in concert to drive things to an extremity calculated to end by damaging everybody; and I asked him if he saw no honest way of escape from a regrettable position, some honourable transaction which would permit everyone to draw back. I added that my friends and I would be happy to have such a way pointed out to us, and that we would make every exertion to persuade our colleagues in the Opposition to accept it. He listened attentively to my remarks, and assured me that he understood my meaning, although I saw clearly that he did not enter into it for a moment.

"Things had reached such a pitch," he said, "that the expedient which I sought was no longer to be found. The Government was in the right, and could not yield. If the Opposition persisted in its course, the result might be a combat in the streets, but this combat had long been foreseen, and if the Government was animated with the evil passions with which it was credited, it would desire this fighting rather than dread it, being sure to triumph in the end."

He went on in his complaisant fashion to tell me in detail of all the military precautions that had been taken, the extent of the resources, the number of the troops, and the quantity of ammunition.... I took my leave, satisfied that the Government, without exactly striving to promote an outbreak, was far from dreading one, and that the Ministry, in its certainty of ultimate victory, saw in the threatening catastrophe possibly its last means of rallying its scattered supporters and of finally reducing its adversaries to powerlessness. I confess that I thought as he did; his air of unfeigned assurance had proved contagious.

The only really uneasy people in Paris at that moment were the Radical chiefs and the men who were sufficiently in touch with the people and the revolutionary party to know what was taking place in that quarter. I have reason to believe that most of these looked with dread upon the events which were ready to burst forth, whether because they kept up the tradition of their former passions rather than these passions themselves, or because they had begun to grow accustomed to a state of things in which they had taken up their position after so many times cursing it; or again, because they were doubtful of success; or rather because, being in a position to study and become well acquainted with their allies, they were fr

ightened at the last moment of the victory which they expected to gain through their aid. On the very day before the outbreak, Madame de Lamartine betrayed extraordinary anxiety when calling upon Madame de Tocqueville, and gave such unmistakable signs of a mind heated and almost deranged by ominous thoughts that the latter became alarmed, and told me of it the same evening.

It is not one of the least curious characteristics of this singular revolution that the incident which led to it was brought about and almost longed for by the men whom it eventually precipitated from power, and that it was only foreseen and feared by those who were to triumph by its means.

Here let me for a moment resume the chain of history, so that I may the more easily attach to it the thread of my personal recollections.

It will be remembered that, at the opening of the session of 1848, King Louis-Philippe, in his Speech from the Throne, had described the authors of the banquets as men excited by blind or hostile passions. This was bringing Royalty into direct conflict with more than one hundred members of the Chamber. This insult, which added anger to all the ambitious passions which were already disturbing the hearts of the majority of these men, ended by making them lose their reason. A violent debate was expected, but did not take place at once. The earlier discussions on the Address were calm: the majority and the Opposition both restrained themselves at the commencement, like two men who feel that they have lost their tempers, and who fear lest while in that condition they should perpetrate some folly in word or deed.

But the storm of passion broke out at last, and continued with unaccustomed violence. The extraordinary heat of these debates was already redolent of civil war for those who knew how to scent revolutions from afar.

The spokesmen of the moderate section of the Opposition were led, in the heat of debate, to assert that the right of assembling at the banquets was one of our most undeniable and essential rights;[4] that to question it, was equivalent to trampling liberty itself underfoot and to violating the Charter, and that those who did so unconsciously made an appeal, not to discussion, but to arms. On his side M. Duchatel, who ordinarily was very dexterous in debate, displayed in this circumstance a consummate want of tact.[5] He absolutely denied the right of assemblage, and yet would not say clearly that the Government had made up its mind to prohibit thenceforth any manifestations of the kind. On the contrary, he seemed to invite the Opposition to try the experiment once more, so that the question might be brought before the Courts. His colleague, M. Hébert, the Minister of Justice, was still more tactless, but this was his habit. I have always observed that lawyers never make statesmen; but I have never met anyone who was less of a statesman than M. Hébert. He remained the Public-Prosecutor down to the marrow of his bones; he had all the mental and physical characteristics of that office. You must imagine a little wizened, sorry face, shrunk at the temples, with a pointed forehead, nose and chin, cold, bright eyes, and thin, in-drawn lips. Add to this a long quill generally held across the mouth, and looking at a distance like a cat's bristling whiskers, and you have a portrait of a man, than whom I have never seen anyone more resembling a carnivorous animal. At the same time, he was neither stupid nor even ill-natured; but he was by nature hot-headed and unyielding; he always overshot his goal, for want of knowing when to turn aside or stop still; and he fell into violence without intending it, and from sheer want of discrimination. It showed how little importance M. Guizot attached to conciliation, that under the circumstances he sent a speaker of this stamp into the tribune;[6] his language while there was so outrageous and so provoking that Barrot, quite beside himself and almost without knowing what he was doing, exclaimed, in a voice half stifled with rage, that the ministers of Charles X., that Polignac and Peyronnet, had never dared to talk like that. I remember that I shuddered involuntarily in my seat when I heard this naturally moderate man exasperated into recalling, for the first time, the terrible memories of the Revolution of 1830, holding it up in some sort as an example, and unconsciously suggesting the idea of repeating it.

The result of this heated discussion was a sort of challenge to mortal combat exchanged between the Government and the Opposition, the scene of the duel to be the law-courts. It was tacitly agreed that the challenged party should meet at one final banquet; that the authorities, without interfering to prevent the meeting, should prosecute its organizers, and that the courts should pronounce judgment.

The debates on the Address were closed, if I remember rightly, on the 12th of February, and it is really from this moment that the revolutionary movement burst out. The Constitutional Opposition, which had for many months been constantly pushed on by the Radical party, was from this time forward led and directed not so much by the members of that party who occupied seats in the Chamber of Deputies (the greater number of these had become lukewarm and, as it were, enervated in the Parliamentary atmosphere), as by the younger, bolder, and more irresponsible men who wrote for the democratic press. This change was especially apparent in two principal facts which had an overwhelming influence upon events-the programme of the banquet and the arraignment of Ministers.

On the 20th of February, there appeared in almost all the Opposition newspapers, by way of programme of the approaching banquet, what was really a proclamation calling upon the entire population to join in an immense political demonstration, convoking the schools and inviting the National Guard itself to attend the ceremony in a body. It read like a decree emanating from the Provisional Government which was to be set up three days later. The Cabinet, which had already been blamed by many of its followers for tacitly authorising the banquet, considered that it was justified in retracing its steps. It officially announced that it forbade the banquet, and that it would prevent it by force.

It was this declaration of the Government which provided the field for the battle. I am in a position to state, although it sounds hardly credible, that the programme which thus suddenly turned the banquet into an insurrection was resolved upon, drawn up and published without the participation or the knowledge of the members of Parliament who considered themselves to be still leading the movement which they had called into existence. The programme was the hurried work of a nocturnal gathering of journalists and Radicals, and the leaders of the Dynastic Opposition heard of it at the same time as the public, by reading it in the papers in the morning.

And see how uncertain is the course of human affairs! M. Odilon Barrot, who disapproved of the programme as much as anyone, dared not disclaim it for fear of offending the men who, till then, had seemed to be moving with him; and then, when the Government, alarmed by the publication of this document, prohibited the banquet, M. Barrot, finding himself brought face to face with civil war, drew back. He himself gave up this dangerous demonstration; but at the same time that he was making this concession to the men of moderation, he granted to the extremists the impeachment of Ministers. He accused the latter of violating the Constitution by prohibiting the banquet, and thus furnished an excuse to those who were about to take up arms in the name of the violated Constitution.

Thus the principal leaders of the Radical Party, who thought that a revolution would be premature, and who did not yet desire it, had considered themselves obliged, in order to differentiate themselves from their allies in the Dynastic Opposition, to make very revolutionary speeches and fan the flame of insurrectionary passion. On the other hand, the Dynastic Opposition, which had had enough of the banquets, had been forced to persevere in this bad course so as not to present an appearance of retreating before the defiance of the Government. And finally, the mass of the Conservatives, who believed in the necessity of great concessions and were ready to make them, were driven by the violence of their adversaries and the passions of some of their chiefs to deny even the right of meeting in private banquets and to refuse the country any hopes of reform.

One must have lived long amid political parties, and in the very whirlwind in which they move, to understand to what extent men mutually push each other away from their respective plans, and how the destinies of this world proceed as the result, but often as the contrary result, of the intentions that produce them, similarly to the kite which flies by the antagonistic action of the wind and the cord.


[4] See the speech of M. Duvergier de Hauranne, 7 February 1848.-Cte. de T.

[5] The minister replied to M. Léon de Mandeville. He quoted the laws of 1790 and 1791, which empowered the authorities to oppose any public meetings which seemed to threaten danger to the public peace, and he declared that the Government would be failing in its duty if it were to give way before manifestations of any description. At the end of his speech he again brought in the phrase "blind or hostile passions," and endeavoured to justify it.-Cte. de T.

[6] Replying to M. Odilon Barrot, M. Hébert maintained that, since the right of public meeting was not laid down in the Charter, it did not exist.-Cte. de T.

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