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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 16670

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The night passed without accidents, although not until the morning did the streets cease to resound with cries and gun-shots; but these were sounds of triumph, not of combat. So soon as it was light, I went out to observe the appearance of the town, and to discover what had become of my two young nephews,[8] who were being educated at the Little Seminary. The Little Seminary was in the Rue de Madame, at the back of the Luxembourg, so that I had to cross a great part of the town to reach it.

I found the streets quiet, and even half deserted, as they usually are in Paris on a Sunday morning, when the rich are still asleep and the poor are resting. From time to time, along the walls, one met the victors of the preceding day; but they were filled with wine rather than political ardour, and were, for the most part, making for their homes without taking heed of the passers-by. A few shops were open, and one caught sight of the frightened, but still more astonished, shopkeepers, who reminded one of spectators witnessing the end of a play which they did not quite understand. What one saw most of in the streets deserted by the people, was soldiers; some walking singly, others in little groups, all unarmed, and crossing the city on their roads home. The defeat these men had just sustained had left a very vivid and lasting impression of shame and anger upon them. This was noticed later, but was not apparent at the time: the pleasure of finding themselves at liberty seemed to absorb every other feeling in these lads; they walked with a careless air, with a light and easy gait.

The Little Seminary had not been attacked nor even insulted. My nephews, however, were not there; they had been sent home the evening before to their maternal grandmother. Accordingly, I turned back, taking the Rue du Bac, to find out what had become of Lamoricière, who was then living in that street; and it was only after recognizing me that the servants admitted that their master was at home, and consented to take me to him.

I found this singular person, whom I shall have occasion to mention more than once, stretched upon his bed, and reduced to a state of immobility very much opposed to his character or taste. His head was half broken open; his arms pierced with bayonet-thrusts; all his limbs bruised and powerless. For the rest, he was the same as ever, with his bright intelligence and his indomitable heart. He told me of all that happened to him the day before, and of the thousand dangers which he had only escaped by miracle. I strongly advised him to rest until he was cured, and even long after, so as not uselessly to endanger his person and his reputation in the chaos about to ensue: good advice, undoubtedly, to give to a man so enamoured of action and so accustomed to act that, after doing what is necessary and useful, he is always ready to undertake the injurious and dangerous, rather than do nothing; but no more effective than all those counsels which go against nature.

I spent the whole afternoon in walking about Paris. Two things in particular struck me: the first was, I will not say the mainly, but the uniquely and exclusively popular character of the revolution that had just taken place; the omnipotence it had given to the people properly so-called-that is to say, the classes who work with their hands-over all others. The second was the comparative absence of malignant passion, or, as a matter of fact, of any keen passion-an absence which at once made it clear that the lower orders had suddenly become masters of Paris.

Although the working classes had often played the leading part in the events of the First Revolution, they had never been the sole leaders and masters of the State, either de facto or de jure; it is doubtful whether the Convention contained a single man of the people; it was composed of bourgeois and men of letters. The war between the Mountain and the Girondists was conducted on both sides by members of the middle class, and the triumph of the former never brought power down into the hands of the people alone. The Revolution of July was effected by the people, but the middle class had stirred it up and led it, and secured the principal fruits of it. The Revolution of February, on the contrary, seemed to be made entirely outside the bourgeoisie and against it.

In this great concussion, the two parties of which the social body in France is mainly composed had, in a way, been thrown more completely asunder, and the mass of the people, which had stood alone, remained in sole possession of power. Nothing more novel had been known in our annals. Similar revolutions had taken place, it is true, in other countries and other days; for the history of our own times, however new and unexpected it may seem, always belongs at bottom to the old history of humanity, and what we call new facts are oftenest nothing more than facts forgotten. Florence, in particular, towards the close of the middle ages, had presented on a small scale a spectacle analogous to ours; the noble classes had first been succeeded by the burgher classes, and then one day the latter were, in their turn, expelled from the government, and a gonfalonier was seen marching barefoot at the head of the people, and thus leading the Republic. But in Florence this popular revolution was the result of transient and special causes, while with us it was brought about by causes very permanent and of a kind so general that, after stirring up France, it was to be expected that it would excite all the rest of Europe. This time it was not only a question of the triumph of a party; the aim was to establish a social science, a philosophy, I might almost say a religion, fit to be learned and followed by all mankind. This was the really new portion of the old picture.

Throughout this day, I did not see in Paris a single one of the former agents of the public authority: not a soldier, not a gendarme, not a policeman; the National Guard itself had disappeared. The people alone bore arms, guarded the public buildings, watched, gave orders, punished; it was an extraordinary and terrible thing to see in the sole hands of those who possessed nothing all this immense town, so full of riches, or rather this great nation: for, thanks to centralization, he who reigns in Paris governs France. Hence the affright of all the other classes was extreme; I doubt whether at any period of the Revolution it had been so great, and I should say that it was only to be compared to that which the civilized cities of the Roman Empire must have experienced when they suddenly found themselves in the power of the Goths and Vandals. As nothing like this had ever been seen before, many people expected acts of unexampled violence. For my part I did not once partake of these fears. What I saw led me to predict strange disturbances in the near future-singular crises. But I never believed that the rich would be pillaged; I knew the men of the people in Paris too well not to know that their first movements in times of revolution are usually generous, and that they are best pleased to spend the days immediately following their triumph in boasting of their victory, laying down the law, and playing at being great men. During that time it generally happens that some government or other is set up, the police returns to its post, and the judge to his bench; and when at last our great men consent to step down to the better known and more vulgar ground of petty and malicious human passion, they are no longer able to do so, and are reduced to live simply like honest men. Besides, we have spent so many years in insurrections that there has arisen among us a kind of morality peculiar to times of disorder, and a special code for days of rebellion. According to these exceptional laws, murder is tolerated and havoc permitted, but theft is strenuously forbidden; although this, whatever one may say, does not prevent a good deal of robbery from occurring upon those days, for the simple reason that society in a state of rebellion cannot be different from that at any other time, and it will always contain a number of rascals who, as far as they are concerned, scorn the morality of the main body, and despise its point of honour when they are unobserved. What reassured me still more was

the reflection that the victors had been as much surprised by success as their adversaries were by defeat: their passions had not had time to take fire and become intensified in the struggle; the Government had fallen undefended by others, or even by itself. It had long been attacked, or at least keenly censured, by the very men who at heart most deeply regretted its fall.

For a year past the dynastic Opposition and the republican Opposition had been living in fallacious intimacy, acting in the same way from different motives. The misunderstanding which had facilitated the revolution tended to mitigate its after effects. Now that the Monarchy had disappeared, the battle-field seemed empty; the people no longer clearly saw what enemies remained for them to pursue and strike down; the former objects of their anger, themselves, were no longer there; the clergy had never been completely reconciled to the new dynasty, and witnessed its ruin without regret; the old nobility were delighted at it, whatever the ultimate consequences might be: the first had suffered through the system of intolerance of the middle classes, the second through their pride: both either despised or feared their government.

For the first time in sixty years, the priests, the old aristocracy and the people met in a common sentiment-a feeling of revenge, it is true, and not of affection; but even that is a great thing in politics, where a community of hatred is almost always the foundation of friendships. The real, the only vanquished were the middle class; but even this had little to fear. Its reign had been exclusive rather than oppressive; corrupt, but not violent; it was despised rather than hated. Moreover, the middle class never forms a compact body in the heart of the nation, a part very distinct from the whole; it always participates a little with all the others, and in some places merges into them. This absence of homogeneity and of exact limits makes the government of the middle class weak and uncertain, but it also makes it intangible, and, as it were, invisible to those who desire to strike it when it is no longer governing.

From all these united causes proceeded that languor of the people which had struck me as much as its omnipotence, a languor which was the more discernible, in that it contrasted strangely with the turgid energy of the language used and the terrible recollections which it evoked. The lukewarm passions of the time were made to speak in the bombastic periods of '93, and one heard cited at every moment the name and example of the illustrious ruffians whom no one possessed either the energy or even a sincere desire to resemble.

It was the Socialistic theories which I have already described as the philosophy of the Revolution of February that later kindled genuine passion, embittered jealousy, and ended by stirring up war between the classes. If the actions at the commencement were less disorderly than might have been feared, on the very morrow of the Revolution there was displayed an extraordinary agitation, an unequalled disorder, in the ideas of the people.

From the 25th of February onwards, a thousand strange systems came issuing pell-mell from the minds of innovators, and spread among the troubled minds of the crowd. Everything still remained standing except Royalty and Parliament; yet it seemed as though the shock of the Revolution had reduced society itself to dust, and as though a competition had been opened for the new form that was to be given to the edifice about to be erected in its place. Everyone came forward with a plan of his own: this one printed it in the papers, that other on the placards with which the walls were soon covered, a third proclaimed his loud-mouthed in the open air. One aimed at destroying inequality of fortune, another inequality of education, a third undertook to do away with the oldest of all inequalities, that between man and woman. Specifics were offered against poverty, and remedies for the disease of work which has tortured humanity since the first days of its existence.

These theories were of very varied natures, often opposed and sometimes hostile to one another; but all of them, aiming lower than the government and striving to reach society itself, on which government rests, adopted the common name of Socialism.

Socialism will always remain the essential characteristic and the most redoubtable remembrance of the Revolution of February. The Republic will only appear to the on-looker to have come upon the scene as a means, not as an end.

It does not come within the scope of these Recollections that I should seek for the causes which gave a socialistic character to the Revolution of February, and I will content myself with saying that the discovery of this new facet of the French Revolution was not of a nature to cause so great surprise as it did. Had it not long been perceived that the people had continually been improving and raising its condition, that its importance, its education, its desires, its power had been constantly increasing? Its prosperity had also grown greater, but less rapidly, and was approaching the limit which it hardly ever passes in old societies, where there are many men and but few places. How should the poor and humbler and yet powerful classes not have dreamt of issuing from their poverty and inferiority by means of their power, especially in an epoch when our view into another world has become dimmer, and the miseries of this world become more visible and seem more intolerable? They had been working to this end for the last sixty years. The people had first endeavoured to help itself by changing every political institution, but after each change it found that its lot was in no way improved, or was only improving with a slowness quite incompatible with the eagerness of its desire. Inevitably, it must sooner or later discover that that which held it fixed in its position was not the constitution of the government but the unalterable laws that constitute society itself; and it was natural that it should be brought to ask itself if it had not both the power and the right to alter those laws, as it had altered all the rest. And to speak more specially of property, which is, as it were, the foundation of our social order-all the privileges which covered it and which, so to speak, concealed the privilege of property having been destroyed, and the latter remaining the principal obstacle to equality among men, and appearing to be the only sign of inequality-was it not necessary, I will not say that it should be abolished in its turn, but at least that the thought of abolishing it should occur to the minds of those who did not enjoy it?

This natural restlessness in the minds of the people, this inevitable perturbation of its thoughts and its desires, these needs, these instincts of the crowd formed in a certain sense the fabric upon which the political innovators embroidered so many monstrous and grotesque figures. Their work may be regarded as ludicrous, but the material on which they worked is the most serious that it is possible for philosophers and statesmen to contemplate.

Will Socialism remain buried in the disdain with which the Socialists of 1848 are so justly covered? I put the question without making any reply. I do not doubt that the laws concerning the constitution of our modern society will in the long run undergo modification: they have already done so in many of their principal parts. But will they ever be destroyed and replaced by others? It seems to me to be impracticable. I say no more, because-the more I study the former condition of the world and see the world of our own day in greater detail, the more I consider the prodigious variety to be met with not only in laws, but in the principles of law, and the different forms even now taken and retained, whatever one may say, by the rights of property on this earth-the more I am tempted to believe that what we call necessary institutions are often no more than institutions to which we have grown accustomed, and that in matters of social constitution the field of possibilities is much more extensive than men living in their various societies are ready to imagine.


[8] Hubert and René de Tocqueville.-Cte. de T.

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