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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 21274

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

As every one knows, the Department of la Manche is peopled almost exclusively by farmers. It contains few large towns, few manufactures, and, with the exception of Cherbourg, no places in which workmen are gathered in large numbers. At first, the Revolution was hardly noticed there. The upper classes immediately bent beneath the blow, and the lower classes scarcely felt it. Generally speaking, agricultural populations are slower than others in perceiving, and more stubborn in retaining, political impressions; they are the last to rise and the last to settle down again. The steward of my estate, himself half a peasant, describing what was taking place in the country immediately after the 24th of February, wrote:

"People here say that if Louis-Philippe has been sent away, it is a good thing, and that he deserved it...."

This was to them the whole moral of the play. But when they heard tell of the disorder reigning in Paris, of the new taxes to be imposed, and of the general state of war that was to be feared; when they saw commerce cease and money seem to sink down into the ground, and when, in particular, they learnt that the principle of property was being attacked, they did not fail to perceive that there was something more than Louis-Philippe in question.

Fear, which had first displayed itself in the upper circles of society, then descended into the depths of the people, and universal terror took possession of the whole country. This was the condition in which I found it when I arrived about the middle of March. I was at once struck by a spectacle that both astonished and charmed me. A certain demagogic agitation reigned, it is true, among the workmen in the towns; but in the country all the landed proprietors, whatever their origin, antecedents, education or means, had come together, and seemed to form but one class: all former political hatred and rivalry of caste or fortune had disappeared from view. There was no more jealousy or pride displayed between the peasant and the squire, the nobleman and the commoner; instead, I found mutual confidence, reciprocal friendliness, and regard. Property had become, with all those who owned it, a sort of badge of fraternity. The wealthy were the elder, the less endowed the younger brothers; but all considered themselves members of one family, having the same interest in defending the common inheritance. As the French Revolution had infinitely increased the number of land-owners, the whole population seemed to belong to that vast family. I had never seen anything like it, nor had anyone in France within the memory of man. Experience has shown that this union was not so close as it appeared, and that the former parties and the various classes had drawn closer rather than mingled together; fear had acted upon them as a mechanical pressure might upon very hard bodies, which are compelled to adhere to one another so long as the pressure continues, but which separate so soon as it is relaxed.

As a matter of fact, from the first moment I saw no trace whatever of political opinions, properly so-called. One would have thought that the republican form of government had suddenly become not only the best, but the only one imaginable for France. Dynastic hopes and regrets were buried so profoundly in the souls of men that not even the place they had once occupied was visible. The Republic respected persons and property, and it was accepted as lawful. In the spectacle I have just described, I was most struck at witnessing the universal hatred, together with the universal terror, now for the first time inspired by Paris. In France, provincials have for Paris, and for the central power of which Paris is the seat, feelings analogous to those which the English entertain for their aristocracy, which they sometimes support with impatience and often regard with jealousy, but which at bottom they love, because they always hope to turn its privileges to their private advantage. This time Paris and those who spoke in its name had so greatly abused their power, and seemed to be giving so little heed to the rest of the country, that the idea of shaking off the yoke and of acting for themselves came to many who had never before conceived it: uncertain and timid desires, it is true, feeble and ephemeral passions from which I never believed that there was much to be either hoped or feared; but these new feelings were then turning into electoral ardour. Everyone clamoured for the elections; for to elect the enemies of the demagogues of Paris presented itself to public opinion less as the constitutional exercise of a right, than as the least dangerous method one could employ of making a stand against the tyrant.

I fixed my head-quarters in the little town of Valognes, which was the natural centre of my influence; and as soon as I had ascertained the condition of the country, I set about my candidature. I then saw what I have often observed under a thousand different circumstances, that nothing makes more for success than not to desire it too ardently. I very much wanted to get elected; but in the difficult and critical condition of affairs then reigning, I easily reconciled myself to the idea of being rejected; and from this placid anticipation of a rebuff I drew a tranquillity and clearness of mind, a respect for myself and a contempt for the follies of the time, that I should perhaps not have found in the same degree had I been swayed only by a longing to succeed.

The country began to fill with roving candidates, hawking their protestations of Republicanism from hustings to hustings. I refused to present myself before any other electoral body than that of the place where I lived. Each small town had its club, and each club questioned the candidates regarding their opinions and actions, and subjected them to formulas. I refused to reply to any of these insolent interrogatories. These refusals, which might have seemed disdainful, appeared in the light of dignity and independence in the face of the new rulers, and I was more esteemed for my rebelliousness than the others for their obedience. I therefore contented myself with publishing an address and having it posted up throughout the department.

Most of the candidates had resumed the old customs of '92. When writing to people they called them "Citizens," and signed themselves "fraternally yours." I would never consent to adopt this revolutionary nonsense. I headed my address, "Gentlemen," and ended by proudly declaring myself my electors' "very humble servant."

"I do not come to solicit your suffrages," I said, "I come only to place myself at the orders of my country. I asked to be your representative when the times were easy and peaceful; my honour forbids me to refuse to be so in a period full of agitation, which may become full of danger. That is the first thing I had to tell you."

I added that I had been faithful to the end to the oath I had taken to the Monarchy, but that the Republic, which had been brought about without my aid, should have my energetic support, and that I would not only accept but assist it. Then I went on:

"But of what Republic is it a question? There are some who, by a Republic, understand a dictatorship exercised in the name of liberty; who think that the Republic should not only change political institutions but the face of society itself. There are some who think that the Republic should needs be of an aggressive and propagandist kind. I am not a Republican after this fashion. If this were your manner of being Republicans, I could be of no use to you, for I should not be of your opinion; but if you understand the Republic as I understand it myself, you can rely upon me to devote myself heart and soul to the triumph of a cause which is mine as well as yours."

Men who show no fear in times of revolution are like princes with the army: they produce a great effect by very ordinary actions, because the peculiar position which they occupy naturally places them above the level of the crowd and brings them very much in view. My address was so successful that I myself was astonished at it; within a few days it made me the most popular man in the department of la Manche, and the object of universal attention. My old political adversaries, the agents of the old Government, the Conservatives themselves who had so vigorously opposed me, and whom the Republic had overthrown, came in crowds to assure me that they were ready not only to vote for me, but to follow my views in everything.

In the meantime, the first meeting of the electors of the Arrondissement of Valognes took place. I appeared together with the other candidates. A shed did duty for a hall; the chairman's platform was at the bottom, and at the side was a professorial pulpit which had been transformed into a tribune. The chairman, who himself was a professor at the College of Valognes, said to me with a loud voice and a magisterial air, but in a very respectful tone: "Citizen de Tocqueville, I will tell you the questions which are put to you, and to which you will have to reply;" to which I replied, carelessly, "Mr Chairman, pray put the questions."

A parliamentary orator, whose name I will not mention, once said to me:

"Look here, my dear friend, there is only one way of speaking well from the tribune, and that is to be fully persuaded, as you get into it, that you are the cleverest man in the world."

This had always appeared to me easier to say than to do, in the presence of our great political assemblies. But I confess that here the maxim was easy enough to follow, and that I thought it a wonderfully good one. Nevertheless, I did not go so far as to convince myself that I was cleverer than all the world; but I soon saw that I was the only one who was well acquainted with the facts they brought up, and even with the political language they wished to speak. It would be difficult to show one's self more maladroit and more ignorant than did my adversaries; they overwhelmed me with questions which they thought very close, and which left me very free, while I on my side made replies which were sometimes not very brilliant, but which always to them appeared most conclusive. The ground on which they hoped, above all, to crush me was that of the banquets. I had refused, as I have already said, to take part in these dangerous demonstrations. My political friends had found fault with me for abandoning them in that matter, and many continued to bear me ill-will, although-or perhaps because-the Revolution had proved me to be right.

"Why did you part from the

Opposition on the occasion of the banquets?" I was asked.

I replied, boldly:

"I could easily find a pretext, but I prefer to give you my real reason: I did not want the banquets because I did not want a revolution; and I venture to say that hardly any of those who sat down to the banquets would have done so had they foreseen, as I did, the events to which these would lead. The only difference I can see between you and myself is that I knew what you were doing while you did not know it yourselves." This bold profession of anti-revolutionary had been preceded by one of republican faith; the sincerity of the one seemed to bear witness to that of the other; the meeting laughed and applauded. My adversaries were scoffed at, and I came off triumphant.

I had won the agricultural population of the department by my address; I won the Cherbourg workmen by a speech. The latter had been assembled to the number of two thousand at a patriotic dinner. I received a very obliging and pressing invitation to attend, and I did.

When I arrived, the procession was ready to start for the banqueting-hall, with, at its head, my old colleague Havin, who had come expressly from Saint-L? to take the chair. It was the first time I had met him since the 24th of February. On that day, I saw him giving his arm to the Duchesse d'Orléans, and the next morning I heard that he was Commissary of the Republic in the department of la Manche. I was not surprised, for I knew him as one of those easily bewildered, ambitious men who had found themselves fixed for ten years in opposition, after thinking at first that they were in it only for a little. How many of these men have I not seen around me, tortured with their own virtue, and despairing because they saw themselves spending the best part of their lives in criticizing the faults of others without ever in some measure realizing by experience what were their own, and finding nothing to feed upon but the sight of public corruption! Most of them had contracted during this long abstinence so great an appetite for places, honours and money that it was easy to predict that at the first opportunity they would throw themselves upon power with a sort of gluttony, without taking time to choose either the moment or the morsel. Havin was the very type of these men. The Provisional Government had given him as his associate, and even as his chief, another of my former colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies, M. Vieillard, who has since become famous as a particular friend of Prince Louis Napoleon's. Vieillard was entitled to serve the Republic, since he had been one of the seven or eight republican deputies under the Monarchy. Moreover, he was one of the Republicans who had passed through the salons of the Empire before attaining demagogism. In literature he was a bigoted classic; a Voltairean in religious belief; rather fatuous, very kind-hearted; an honest man, and even an intelligent; but a very fool in politics. Havin had made him his tool: whenever he wished to strike a blow at one of his own enemies, or to reward one of his own friends, he invariably put forward Vieillard, who allowed him to do as he pleased. In this manner Havin made his way sheltered beneath the honesty and republicanism of Vieillard, whom he always kept before him, as the miner does his gabion.

Havin scarcely seemed to recognize me; he did not invite me to take a place in the procession. I modestly withdrew into the midst of the crowd; and when we arrived at the banqueting-hall, I sat down at one of the lower tables. We soon got to the speeches: Vieillard delivered a very proper written speech, and Havin read out another written speech, which was well received. I, too, was very much inclined to speak, but my name was not down, and moreover I did not quite see how I was to begin. A word which one of the orators (for all the speakers called themselves orators) dropped to the memory of Colonel Briqueville gave me my opportunity. I asked for permission to speak, and the meeting consented. When I found myself perched in the tribune, or rather in that pulpit placed twenty feet above the crowd, I felt a little confused; but I soon recovered myself, and delivered a little piece of oratorical fustian which I should find it impossible to recollect to-day. I only know that it contained a certain appositeness, besides the warmth which never fails to make itself apparent through the disorder of an improvised speech, a merit quite sufficient to succeed with a popular assembly, or even with an assembly of any sort; for, it cannot be too often repeated, speeches are made to be listened to and not to be read, and the only good ones are those that move the audience.

The success of mine was marked and complete, and I confess it seemed very sweet to me to revenge myself in this way on the manner in which my former colleague had endeavoured to abuse what he considered the favours of fortune.

If I am not mistaken, it was between this time and the elections that I made my journey to Saint-L?, as member of the Council General. The Council had been summoned to an extraordinary sitting. It was still composed as under the Monarchy: most of its members had shown themselves complaisant towards Louis-Philippe's ministers, and may be reckoned among those who had most contributed to bring that Prince's government into contempt in our country. The only thing I can recall of the Saint-L? journey is the singular servility of these ex-Conservatives. Not only did they make no opposition to Havin, who had insulted them for the past ten years, but they became his most attentive courtiers. They praised him with their words, supported him with their votes, smiled upon him approvingly; they even spoke well of him among themselves, for fear of indiscretion. I have often seen greater pictures of human baseness, but never any that was more perfect; and I think it deserves, despite its pettiness, to be brought fully to light. I will, therefore, display it in the light of subsequent events, and I will add that some months later, when the turn of the popular tide had restored them to power, they at once set about pursuing this same Havin anew with unheard-of violence and even injustice. All their old hatred became visible amid the quaking of their terror, and it seemed to have become still greater at the remembrance of their temporary complaisance.

Meantime the general election was drawing nigh, and each day the aspect of the future became more sinister. All the news from Paris represented the capital as on the point of constantly falling into the hands of armed Socialists. It was doubted whether these latter would allow the electors to vote freely, or at least whether they would submit to the National Assembly. Already in every part of the country the officers of the National Guard were being made to swear that they would march against the Assembly if a conflict arose between that body and the people. The provinces were becoming more and more alarmed, but were also strengthening themselves at the sight of the danger.

I spent the few days preceding the contest at my poor, dear Tocqueville. It was the first time I had visited it since the Revolution: I was perhaps about to leave it for ever! I was seized on my arrival with so great and uncommon a feeling of sadness that it has left in my memory traces which have remained marked and visible to this day amid all the vestiges of the events of that time. I was not expected. The empty rooms, in which there was none but my old dog to receive me, the undraped windows, the heaped-up dusty furniture, the extinct fires, the run-down clocks-all seemed to point to abandonment and to foretell ruin. This little isolated corner of the earth, lost, as it were, amid the fields and hedges of our Norman coppices, which had so often seemed to me the most charming of solitudes, now appeared to me, in the actual state of my thoughts, as a desolate desert; but across the desolation of its present aspect I discovered, as though from the depth of a tomb, the sweetest and most attractive episodes of my life. I wonder how our imagination gives so much deeper colour and so much more attractiveness to things than they possess. I had just witnessed the fall of the Monarchy; I have since been present at the most sanguinary scenes; and nevertheless I declare that none of these spectacles produced in me so deep and painful an emotion as that which I experienced that day at the sight of the ancient abode of my forefathers, when I thought of the peaceful days and happy hours I had spent there without knowing their value-I say that it was then and there that I best understood all the bitterness of revolutions.

The local population had always been well disposed to me; but this time I found them affectionate, and I was never received with more respect than now, when all the walls were placarded with the expression of degrading equality. We were all to go and vote together at the borough of Saint-Pierre, about one league away from our village. On the morning of the election, all the voters (that is to say, all the male population above the age of twenty) collected together in front of the church. All these men formed themselves in a double column, in alphabetical order. I took up my place in the situation denoted by my name, for I knew that in democratic times and countries one must be nominated to the head of the people, and not place one's self there. At the end of the long procession, in carts or on pack-horses, came the sick or infirm who wished to follow us; we left none behind save the women and children. We were one hundred and sixty-six all told. At the top of the hill which commands Tocqueville there came a halt; they wished me to speak. I climbed to the other side of a ditch; a circle was formed round me, and I spoke a few words such as the circumstances inspired. I reminded these worthy people of the gravity and importance of what they were about to do; I recommended them not to allow themselves to be accosted or turned aside by those who, on our arrival at the borough, might seek to deceive them, but to march on solidly and stay together, each in his place, until they had voted. "Let no one," I said, "go into a house to seek food or shelter [it was raining] before he has done his duty." They cried that they would do as I wished, and they did. All the votes were given at the same time, and I have reason to believe that they were almost all given to the same candidate.

After voting myself, I took my leave of them, and set out to return to Paris.

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