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   Chapter 7 VACILLATION OF THE MEMBERS OF THE OLD PARLIAMENT AS TO THE ATTITUDE THEY SHOULD ADOPT—MY OWN REFLECTIONS ON MY MODE OF ACTION, AND MY RESOLVES.

The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 17607

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


During the days immediately following upon the 24th of February, I neither went in search of nor fell in with any of the politicians from whom the events of that day had separated me. I felt no necessity nor, to tell the truth, any inclination to do so. I felt a sort of instinctive repugnance to remembering this wretched parliamentary world, in which I had spent six years of my life, and in whose midst I had seen the Revolution sprouting up.

Moreover, at that time I saw the great vanity of any sort of political conversation or combination. However feeble the reasons may have been which first imparted the movement to the mob, that movement had now become irresistible. I felt that we were all in the midst of one of those great floods of democracy in which the embankments, intended to resist individuals and even parties, only serve to drown those who build them, and in which, for a time, there is nothing to be done but to study the general character of the phenomenon. I therefore spent all my time in the streets with the victors, as though I had been a worshipper of fortune. True, I paid no homage to the new sovereign, and asked no favours of it. I did not even address it, but contented myself with listening to and observing it.

Nevertheless, after the lapse of some days, I resumed relations with the vanquished: I once more met ex-deputies, ex-peers, men of letters, men of business and finance, land-owners, all who in the language of the moment were commencing to be known as the idle. I found that the aspect of the Revolution was no less extraordinary when thus seen from above than it had seemed to me when, at the commencement, I viewed it from below. I encountered much fear, but as little genuine passion as I had seen in other quarters; a curious feeling of resignation, no vestige of hope, and I should almost say no idea of ever returning to the Government which they had only just left. Although the Revolution of February was the shortest and the least bloody of all our revolutions, it had filled men's minds and hearts with the idea of its omnipotence to a much greater extent than any of its predecessors. I believe this was, to a great extent, due to the fact that these minds and hearts were void of political faith and ardour, and that, after so many disappointments and vain agitations, they retained nothing but a taste for comfort-a very tenacious and very exclusive, but also a very agreeable feeling, which easily accommodates itself to any form of government, provided it be allowed to satisfy itself.

I beheld, therefore, an universal endeavour to make the best of the new state of things and to win over the new master. The great landlords were glad to remember that they had always been hostile to the middle class and always favoured the people; the bourgeois themselves remembered with a certain pride that their fathers had been working men, and when they were unable, owing to the inevitable obscurity of their pedigrees, to trace back their descent to a labourer who had worked with his hands, they at least strove to discover a plebeian ancestor who had been the architect of his own fortune. They took as great pains to make a display of the latter as, not long before, they would have taken to conceal his existence: so true is it that human vanity, without changing its nature, can show itself under the most diverse aspects. It has an obverse and a reverse side, but it is always the same medal.

As there was no longer any genuine feeling left save that of fear, far from breaking with those of his relations who had thrown themselves into the Revolution, each strove to draw closer to them. The time had come to try and turn to account any scapegrace whom one had in one's family. If good luck would have it that one had a cousin, a brother, or a son who had become ruined by his disorderly life, one could be sure that he was in a fair way to succeed; and if he had become known by the promulgation of some extravagant theory or other, he might hope to attain to any height. Most of the commissaries and under-commissaries of the Government were men of this type.

As to King Louis-Philippe, there was no more question of him than if he had belonged to the Merovingian Dynasty. Nothing struck me more than the absolute silence that had suddenly surrounded his name. I did not hear it pronounced a single time, so to speak, either by the people or by the upper class. Those of his former courtiers whom I saw did not speak of him, and I honestly believe they did not think of him. The Revolution had so completely turned their thoughts in another direction, that they had forgotten their Sovereign. I may be told that this is the ordinary fate of fallen kings; but what seems more worthy of remark, his enemies even had forgotten him: they no longer feared him enough to slander him, perhaps even to hate him, which is one of fortune's greatest, or at least rarest, insults.

I do not wish to write the history of the Revolution of 1848, I only wish to retrace my own actions, ideas, and impressions during the course of this revolution; and I therefore pass over the events that took place during the weeks immediately following the 24th of February, and come to the period preceding the General Election.

The time had come to decide whether one cared merely to watch the progress of this singular revolution or to take part in events. I found the former party leaders divided among themselves; and each of them, moreover, seemed divided also within himself, to judge by the incoherence of the language used and the vacillation of opinion. These politicians, who had almost all been trained to public business amid the regulated, restrained movement of constitutional liberty, and upon whom a great revolution had unexpectedly come, were like river oarsmen who should suddenly find themselves called upon to navigate their boat in mid-ocean. The knowledge they had acquired in their fresh water trips would be of more trouble than assistance to them in this greater adventure, and they would often display more confusion and uncertainty than the passengers themselves.

M. Thiers frequently expressed the opinion that they should go to the poll and get elected, and as frequently urged that it would be wiser to stand aside. I do not know whether his hesitation arose from his dread of the dangers that might follow upon the election, or his fear lest he should not be elected. Rémusat, who always sees so clearly what might, and so dimly what should be done, set forth the good reasons that existed for staying at home, and the no less good reasons for going to the country. Duvergier was distracted. The Revolution had overthrown the system of the balance of power in which his mind had sat motionless during so many years, and he felt as though he were hung up in mid-air. As for the Duc de Broglie, he had not put his head out of his shell since the 24th of February, and in this attitude he awaited the end of society, which in his opinion was close at hand. M. Molé alone, although he was by far the oldest of all the former parliamentary leaders, and possibly for that very reason, resolutely maintained the opinion that they should take part in public affairs and try to lead the Revolution; perhaps because his longer experience had taught him that in troubled times it is dangerous to play the looker-on; perhaps because the hope of again having something to lead cheered him and hid from him the danger of the undertaking; or perhaps because, after being so often bent in contrary directions, under so many different régimes, his mind had become firmer as well as more supple and more indifferent as to the kind of master it might serve. On my side, as may be imagined, I very attentively considered which was the best resolution to adopt.

I should like here to inquire into the reasons which determined my course of action, and having found them, to set them down without evasion: but how difficult it is to speak well of one's self! I have observed that the greater part of those who have written their Memoirs have only well shown us their bad actions or their weaknesses when they happened to have taken them for deeds of prowess or fine instincts, a thing which often occurs. As in the case of the Cardinal de Retz, who, in order to be credited with what he considers the glory of being a good conspirator, confesses his schemes for assassinating Richelieu, and tells us of his hypocritical devotions and charities lest he should fail to be taken for a clever man. In such cases it is not the love of truth that guides the pen, but the warped mind which involuntarily betrays the vices of the heart.

And even when one wishes to be sincere, it is very rarely that one succeeds in the endeavour. The faul

t lies, in the first place, with the public, which likes to see one accuse, but will not suffer him to praise, himself; even one's friends are wont to describe as amiable candour all the harm, and as unbecoming vanity all the good, that he says of himself: so that at this rate sincerity becomes a very thankless trade, by which one has everything to lose and nothing to gain. But the difficulty, above all, lies with the subject himself: he is too close to himself to see well, and prone to lose himself amid the views, interests, ideas, thoughts and inclinations that have guided his actions. This net-work of little foot-paths, which are little known even by those who use them, prevent one from clearly discerning the main roads followed by the will before arriving at the most important conclusions.

Nevertheless, I will try to discover myself amid this labyrinth, for it is only right that I should take the same liberties with myself which I have taken, and shall often continue to take, with others.

Let me say, then, that when I came to search carefully into the depths of my own heart, I discovered, with some surprise, a certain sense of relief, a sort of gladness mingled with all the griefs and fears to which the Revolution had given rise. I suffered from this terrible event for my country, but clearly not for myself; on the contrary, I seemed to breathe more freely than before the catastrophe. I had always felt myself stifled in the atmosphere of the parliamentary world which had just been destroyed: I had found it full of disappointments, both where others and where I myself was concerned; and to commence with the latter, I was not long in discovering that I did not possess the necessary qualifications to play the brilliant r?le that I had imagined: both my qualities and my defects were impediments. I had not the virtues necessary to command respect, and I was too upright to stoop to all the petty practices which were at that time essential to a speedy success. And observe that this uprightness was irremediable; for it forms so integral a part both of my temperament and my principles, that without it I am never able to turn myself to any account. Whenever I have, by ill-luck, been obliged to speak in defence of a bad cause, or to assist in bad measures, I have immediately found myself deprived of all talent and all ardour; and I confess that nothing has consoled me more at the want of success with which my uprightness has often met, than the certainty I have always been in that I could never have made more than a very clumsy and mediocre rogue. I also ended by perceiving that I was absolutely lacking in the art of grouping and leading a large number of men. I have always been incapable of dexterity, except in tête-à-tête, and embarrassed and dumb in the presence of a crowd; I do not mean to say that at a given moment I am unable to say and do what will please it, but that is not enough: those great occasions are very rare in parliamentary warfare. The trick of the trade, in a party leader, is to be able to mix continually with his followers and even his adversaries, to show himself, to move about daily, to play continually now to the boxes, now to the gallery, so as to reach the level of every intelligence, to discuss and argue without end, to say the same things a thousand times in different ways, and to be impassioned eternally in the face of the same objects. These are all things of which I am quite incapable. I find it troublesome to discuss matters which interest me little, and painful to discuss those in which I am keenly concerned. Truth is for me so rare and precious a thing that, once found, I do not like to risk it on the hazard of a debate; it is a light which I fear to extinguish by waving it to and fro. And as to consorting with men, I could not do so in any habitual and general fashion, because I never recognize more than a very few. Unless a person strikes me by something out of the common in his intellect or opinions, I, so to speak, do not see him. I have always taken it for granted that mediocrities, as well as men of merit, had a nose, a mouth, eyes; but I have never, in their case, been able to fix the particular shape of these features in my memory. I am constantly inquiring the name of strangers whom I see every day, and as constantly forgetting them; and yet, I do not despise them, only I consort but little with them, treating them as constant quantities. I honour them, for the world is made up of them; but they weary me profoundly.

What completed my disgust was the mediocrity and monotony of the parliamentary events of that period, as well as the triviality of the passions and the vulgar perversity of the men who pretended to cause or to guide them.

I have sometimes thought that, though the habits of different societies may differ, the morality of the politicians at the head of affairs is everywhere the same. What is very certain is that, in France, all the party leaders whom I have met in my time have, with few exceptions, appeared to me to be equally unworthy of holding office, some because of their lack of personal character or of real parts, most by their lack of any sort of virtue. I thus experienced as great a difficulty in joining with others as in being satisfied with myself, in obeying as in acting on my own initiative.

But that which most tormented and depressed me during the nine years I had spent in business, and which to this day remains my most hideous memory of that time, is the incessant uncertainty in which I had to live as to the best daily course to adopt. I am inclined to think that my uncertainty of character arises rather from a want of clearness of idea than from any weakness of heart, and that I never experienced either hesitation or difficulty in following the most rugged road, when once I clearly saw where it would lead me. But amid all these little dynastic parties, differing so little in aim, and resembling one another so much in the bad methods which they put into practice, which was the thoroughfare that led visibly to honour, or even to utility? Where lay truth? Where falsehood? On which side were the rogues? On which side the honest men? I was never, at that time, fully able to distinguish it, and I declare that even now I should not well be able to do so. Most party men allow themselves to be neither distressed nor unnerved by doubts of this kind; many even have never known them, or know them no longer. They are often accused of acting without conviction; but my experience has proved that this was much less frequently the case than one might think. Only they possess the precious and sometimes, in politics, even necessary faculty of creating transient convictions for themselves, according to the passions and interests of the moment, and thus they succeed in committing, honourably enough, actions which in themselves are little to their credit. Unfortunately, I could never bring myself to illuminate my intelligence with these special and artificial lights, nor so readily to convince myself that my own advantage was one and the same with the general good.

It was this parliamentary world, in which I had suffered all the wretchedness that I have just described, which was broken up by the Revolution; it had mingled and confounded the old parties in one common ruin, deposed their leaders, and destroyed their traditions and discipline. There had issued from this, it was true, a disordered and confused state of society, but one in which ability became less necessary and less highly rated than courage and disinterestedness; in which personal character was more important than elocution or the art of leadership; but, above all, in which there was no field left for vacillation of mind: on this side lay the salvation of the country; on that, its destruction. There was no longer any mistake possible as to the road to follow; we were to walk in broad daylight, supported and encouraged by the crowd. The road seemed dangerous, it is true, but my mind is so constructed that it is less afraid of danger than of doubt. I felt, moreover, that I was still in the prime of life, that I had few needs, and, above all, that I was able to find at home the support, so rare and precious in times of revolution, of a devoted wife, whom a firm and penetrating mind and a naturally lofty soul would easily maintain at the level of every situation and above every reverse.

I therefore determined to plunge boldly into the arena, and in defence, not of any particular government, but of the laws which constitute society itself, to risk my fortune, my person, and my peace of mind. The first thing was to secure my election, and I left speedily for Normandy in order to put myself before the electors.

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