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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 16526

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The next morning was the 24th of February. On leaving my bed-room, I met the cook, who had been out; the good woman was quite beside herself, and poured out a sorrowing rigmarole, of which I failed to understand a word, except that the Government was massacring the poor people. I went downstairs at once, and had no sooner set foot in the street than I breathed for the first time the atmosphere of revolution. The roadway was empty; the shops were not open; there were no carriages nor pedestrians to be seen; none of the ordinary hawkers' cries were heard; neighbours stood talking in little groups at their doors, with subdued voices, with a frightened air; every face seemed distorted with fear or anger. I met a National Guard hurrying along, gun in hand, with a tragic gait; I accosted him, but I could learn nothing from him, save that the Government was massacring the people (to which he added that the National Guard would know how to put that right). It was the same old refrain: it is easily understood that this explanation explained nothing. I was too well acquainted with the vices of the Government of July not to know that cruelty was not one of them. I considered it one of the most corrupt, but also one of the least bloodthirsty, that had ever existed, and I only repeat this observation in order to show the sort of report that assists the progress of revolutions.

I hastened to M. de Beaumont, who lived in the next street. There I learnt that the King had sent for him during the night. The same reply was given to my enquiry at M. de Rémusat's, where I went next. M. de Corcelles, whom I met in the street, gave me his account of what was happening, but in a very confused manner; for, in a city in state of revolution, as on a battle-field, each one readily regards the incidents of which himself is a witness as the events of the day. He told me of the firing on the Boulevard des Capucines, and of the rapid development of the insurrection of which this act of unnecessary violence was the cause or the pretext; of M. Molé's refusal to take office under these circumstances; and lastly, of the summons to the Palace of Messrs. Thiers, Barrot and their friends, who were definitely charged with the formation of a cabinet, facts too well known to permit of my lingering over them. I asked M. de Corcelles how the ministers proposed to set about appeasing people's minds.

"M. de Rémusat," said he, "is my authority for saying that the plan adopted is to withdraw all the troops and to flood Paris with National Guards." These were his own words.

I have always observed that in politics people were often ruined through possessing too good a memory. The men who were now charged to put an end to the Revolution of 1848 were exactly the same who had made the Revolution of 1830. They remembered that at that time the resistance of the army had failed to stop them, and that on the other hand the presence of the National Guard, so imprudently dissolved by Charles X., might have embarrassed them greatly and prevented them from succeeding. They took the opposite steps to those adopted by the Government of the Elder Branch, and arrived at the same result. So true is it that, if humanity be always the same, the course of history is always different, that the past is not able to teach us much concerning the present, and that those old pictures, when forced into new frames, never have a good effect.

After chatting for a little while on the dangerous position of affairs, M. de Corcelles and I went to fetch M. Lanjuinais, and all three of us went together to M. Dufaure, who lived in the Rue Le Peletier. The boulevard, which we followed to get there, presented a strange spectacle. There was hardly a soul to be seen, although it was nearly nine o'clock in the morning, and one heard not the slightest sound of a human voice; but all the little sentry-boxes which stand along this endless avenue seemed to move about and totter upon their base, and from time to time one of them would fall with a crash, while the great trees along the curb came tumbling down into the roadway as though of their own accord. These acts of destruction were the work of isolated individuals, who went about their business silently, regularly, and hurriedly, preparing in this way the materials for the barricades which others were to erect. Nothing ever seemed to me more to resemble the carrying on of an industry, and, as a matter of fact, for the greater number of these men it was nothing less. The instinct of disorder had given them the taste for it, and their experience of so many former insurrections the practice. I do not know that during the whole course of the day I was so keenly struck as in passing through this solitude in which one saw, so to speak, the worst passions of mankind at play, without the good ones appearing. I would rather have met in the same place a furious crowd; and I remember that, calling Lanjuinais' attention to those tottering edifices and falling trees, I gave vent to the phrase which had long been on my lips, and said:

"Believe me, this time it is no longer a riot: it is a revolution."

M. Dufaure told us all that concerned himself in the occurrences of the preceding evening and of the night. M. Molé had at first applied to him to assist him to form the new Cabinet; but the increasing gravity of the situation had soon made them both understand that the moment for their intervention had passed. M. Molé told the King so about midnight, and the King sent him to fetch M. Thiers, who refused to accept office unless he was given M. Barrot for a colleague. Beyond this point, M. Dufaure knew no more than we did. We separated without having succeeded in deciding upon our line of action, and without coming to any resolution beyond that of proceeding to the Chamber so soon as it opened.

M. Dufaure did not come, and I never precisely learnt why. It was certainly not from fear, for I have since seen him very calm and very firm under much more dangerous circumstances. I believe that he grew alarmed for his family, and desired to take them to a place of safety outside Paris. His private and his public virtues, both of which were very great, did not keep step: the first were always ahead of the second, and we shall see signs of this on more than one subsequent occasion. Nor, for that matter, would I care to lay this to his account as a serious charge. Virtues of any kind are too rare to entitle us to vex those who possess them about their character or their degree.

The time which we had spent with M. Dufaure had sufficed to enable the rioters to erect a large number of barricades along the road by which we had come; they were putting the finishing touches to them as we passed on our way back. These barricades were cunningly constructed by a small number of men, who worked very diligently: not like guilty men hurried by the dread of being taken in the act, but like good workmen anxious to get their task done well and expeditiously. The public watched them quietly, without expressing disapproval or offering assistance. I did not discover any signs of that sort of general seething which I had witnessed in 1830, and which made me at the time compare the whole city to a huge boiling caldron. This time the public was not overthrowing the Government; it was allowing it to fall.

We met on the boulevard a column of infantry falling back upon the Madeleine. No one addressed a word to it, and yet its retreat resembled a rout. The ranks were broken, the soldiers marched in disorder, with hanging heads and an air that was both downcast and frightened. Whenever one of them became separated for a mere instant from the main body, he was at once surrounded, seized, embraced, disarmed and sent back: all this was the work of a moment.

Crossing the Place du Havre, I met for the first time a battalion of that National Guard with which Paris was to be flooded. These men marched with a look of astonishment and an uncertain step, surrounded by street boys shouting, "Reform for ever!" to whom they replied with the same cry, but in a smothered and somewhat constrained voice. This battalion belonged to my neighbourhood, and most of those who composed it knew

me by sight, although I knew hardly any of them. They surrounded me and greedily pressed me for news; I told them that we had obtained all we wanted, that the ministry was changed, that all the abuses complained of were to be reformed, and that the only danger we now ran was lest people should go too far, and that it was for them to prevent it. I soon saw that this view did not appeal to them.

"That's all very well, sir," said they; "the Government has got itself into this scrape through its own fault, let it get out of it as best it can."

It was of small use my representing to them that it was much less a question for the Government at present than for themselves:

"If Paris is delivered to anarchy," I said, "and all the Kingdom is in confusion, do you think that none but the King will suffer?"

It was of no avail, and all I could obtain in reply was this astounding absurdity: it was the Government's fault, let the Government run the danger; we don't want to get killed for people who have managed their business so badly. And yet this was that middle class which had been pampered for eighteen years: the current of public opinion had ended by dragging it along, and was driving it against those who had flattered it until it had become corrupt.

This was the occasion of a reflection which has often since presented itself to my mind; in France a government always does wrong to rely solely for support upon the exclusive interests and selfish passions of one class. This can only succeed with nations more self-interested and less vain than ours: with us, when a government established upon this basis becomes unpopular, it follows that the members of the very class for whose sake it has lost its popularity prefer the pleasure of traducing it with all the world to the privileges which it assures them. The old French aristocracy, which was more enlightened than our modern middle class and possessed much greater esprit de corps, had already given the same example; it had ended by thinking it a mark of distinction to run down its own privileges, and by thundering against the abuses upon which it existed. That is why I think that, upon the whole, the safest method of government for us to adopt, in order to endure, is that of governing well, of governing in the interest of everybody. I am bound to confess, however, that, even when one follows this course, it is not very certain that one will endure for long.

I soon set out to go to the Chamber, although the time fixed for the opening of the sitting had not yet come: it was, I believe, about eleven o'clock. I found the Place Louis XV still clear of people, but occupied by several regiments of cavalry. When I saw all these troops drawn up in such good order, I began to think that they had only deserted the streets in order to mass themselves around the Tuileries and defend themselves there. At the foot of the obelisk were grouped the staff, among whom, as I drew nearer, I recognized Bedeau, whose unlucky star had quite recently brought him back from Africa, in time to bury the Monarchy. I had spent a few days with him, the year before, at Constantine, and there had sprung up between us a sort of intimacy which has since continued. So soon as Bedeau caught sight of me, he sprang from his horse, came up to me, and grasped my hand in a way that clearly betrayed his excitement. His conversation gave yet stronger evidence of this, and I was not surprised, for I have always observed that the men who lose their heads most easily, and who generally show themselves weakest on days of revolution, are soldiers; accustomed as they are to have an organized force facing them and an obedient force in their hands, they readily become confused before the uproarious shouts of a mob and in presence of the hesitation and the occasional connivance of their own men. Unquestionably, Bedeau was confused, and everybody knows what were the results of this confusion: how the Chamber was invaded by a handful of men within pistol-shot of the squadrons protecting it, and how, in consequence, the fall of the Monarchy was proclaimed and the Provisional Government elected. The part played by Bedeau on this fatal day was, unfortunately for himself, of so preponderating a character that I propose to stop a moment in order to analyze this man and his motives for acting as he did. We have been sufficiently intimate both before and after this event to enable me to speak with knowledge. It is true that he received the order not to fight; but why did he obey so extraordinary an order, which circumstances had rendered so impracticable?

Bedeau was assuredly not timid by nature, nor even, properly speaking, undecided; for, when he had once made up his mind, you saw him making for his goal with great firmness, coolness and courage; but his mind was the most methodical, the least self-reliant, the least adventurous, and the least adapted for unpremeditated action that can well be imagined. He was accustomed to consider the action which he was about to undertake in all its aspects before setting to work, taking the worst aspects first, and losing much precious time in diluting a single thought in a multitude of words. For the rest, he was a just man, moderate, liberal-minded, as humane as though he had not waged war in Africa for eighteen years, modest, moral, even refined, and religious: the kind of honest, virtuous man who is very rarely to be met with in military circles, or, to speak plainly, elsewhere. It was assuredly not from want of courage that he did certain acts which seemed to point to this defect, for he was brave beyond measure; still less was treachery his motive: although he may not have been attached to the Orleans Family, he was as little capable of betraying those Princes as their best friends could have been, and much less so than their creatures eventually were. His misfortune was that he was drawn into events which were greater than himself, and that he had only merit where genius was needed, and especially the genius to grapple with revolutions, which consists principally in regulating one's actions according to events, and in knowing how to disobey at the right time. The remembrance of February poisoned General Bedeau's life, and left a cruel wound deep down in his soul, a wound whose agony betrayed itself unceasingly by endless recitals and explanations of the events of that period.

While he was engaged in telling me of his perplexities, and in endeavouring to prove that the duty of the Opposition was to come down to the streets in a body and calm the popular excitement with their speeches, a crowd of people glided in between the trees of the Champs-Elysées and came down the main avenue towards the Place Louis XV. Bedeau perceived these men, dragged me towards them on foot until he was more than a hundred paces from his cavalry, and began to harangue them, for he was more disposed to speech-making than any military man I have ever known.

While he was holding forth in this way, I observed that the circle of his listeners was gradually extending itself around us, and would soon close us in; and through the first rank of sight-seers I clearly caught sight of men of riotous aspect moving about, while I heard dull murmurs in the depths of the crowd of these dangerous words, "It's Bugeaud." I leant towards the general and whispered in his ear:

"I have more experience than you of the ways of the populace; take my word, get back to your horse at once, for if you stay here, you will be killed or taken prisoner before five minutes are over."

He took my word for it, and it was well he did. A few moments later, these same men whom he had undertaken to convert murdered the occupants of the guard-house in the Rue des Champs-Elysées; I myself had some difficulty in forcing my way through them. One of them, a short, thick-set man, who seemed to belong to the lower class of workmen, asked me where I was going.

I replied, "To the Chamber," adding, to show that I was a member of the Opposition, "Reform for ever! You know the Guizot Ministry has been dismissed?"

"Yes, sir, I know," replied the man, jeeringly, and pointing to the Tuileries, "but we want more than that."

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