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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 14351

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Lamartine was now at the climax of his fame: to all those whom the Revolution had injured or alarmed, that is to say, to the great majority of the nation, he appeared in the light of a saviour. He had been elected to the Assembly by the city of Paris and no fewer than eleven departments; I do not believe that ever anybody inspired such keen transports as those to which he was then giving rise; one must have seen love thus stimulated by fear to know with what excess of idolatry men are capable of loving. The transcendental favour which was shown him at this time was not to be compared with anything except, perhaps, the excessive injustice which he shortly afterwards received. All the deputies who came to Paris with the desire to put down the excesses of the Revolution and to combat the demagogic party regarded him beforehand as their only possible leader, and looked to him unhesitatingly to place himself at their head to attack and overthrow the Socialists and demagogues. They soon discovered that they were deceived, and that Lamartine did not see the part he was called upon to play in so simple a light. It must be confessed that his was a very complex and difficult position. It was forgotten at the time, but he could not himself forget, that he had contributed more than any other to the success of the Revolution of February. Terror effaced this remembrance for the moment from the public mind; but a general feeling of security could not fail soon to restore it. It was easy to foresee that, so soon as the current which had brought affairs to their present pitch was arrested, a contrary current would set in, which would impel the nation in the opposite direction, and drive it faster and further than Lamartine could or would go. The success of the Montagnards would involve his immediate ruin; but their complete defeat would render him useless and must, sooner or later, remove the government from his hands. He saw, therefore, that for him there was almost as much danger and loss in triumph as in defeat.

As a matter of fact, I believe that, if Lamartine had resolutely, from the first, placed himself at the head of the immense party which desired to moderate and regulate the course of the Revolution, and had succeeded in leading it to victory, he would before long have been buried beneath his own triumph; he would not have been able to stop his army in time, and it would have left him behind and chosen other leaders.

I doubt whether, whatever line of conduct he had adopted, he could have retained his power for long. I believe his only remaining chance was to be gloriously defeated while saving his country. But Lamartine was the last man to sacrifice himself in this way. I do not know that I have ever, in this world of selfishness and ambition in which I lived, met a mind so void of any thought of the public welfare as his. I have seen a crowd of men disturbing the country in order to raise themselves: that is an everyday perversity; but he is the only one who seemed to me always ready to turn the world upside down in order to divert himself. Neither have I ever known a mind less sincere, nor one that had a more thorough contempt for the truth. When I say he despised it, I am wrong: he did not honour it enough to heed it in any way whatever. When speaking or writing, he spoke the truth or lied, without caring which he did, occupied only with the effect he wished to produce at the moment.

I had not seen Lamartine since the 24th of February. I saw him the first time on the day before the opening of the Assembly in the new house, where I had gone to choose my seat, but I did not speak to him; he was surrounded by some of his new friends. The instant he saw me, he pretended some business at the other end of the house, and hurried away as fast as he could. He sent me word afterwards by Champeaux (who belonged to him, half as a friend and half as a servant) that I must not take it ill of him that he avoided me; that his position obliged him to act in this way towards the members of the late parliament; that my place was, of course, marked out among the future leaders of the Republic; but that we must wait till the first temporary difficulties were surmounted before coming to an agreement. Champeaux also declared that he was instructed to ask my opinion on the state of business; I gave it him very readily, but to very little purpose. This established certain indirect relations between Lamartine and myself through the intermediary of Champeaux. The latter often came to see me, to inform me, on behalf of his patron, of the arrangements that were being prepared; and I sometimes went to see him in a little room he had hired on the top floor of a house in the Rue Saint-Honoré, where he used to receive suspicious visitors, although he had a complete set of rooms at the Foreign Office.

I usually found him overwhelmed with place-hunters; for in France political mendicancy exists under every form of government. It even increases through the very revolutions that are directed against it, because all revolutions ruin a certain number of men, and with us a ruined man always looks to the State to repair his fortunes. They were of all kinds, all attracted by the reflection of power which Lamartine's friendship very transiently cast over Champeaux. I remember among others a certain cook, not particularly distinguished in his calling, as far as I could see, who insisted upon entering the service of Lamartine, who had, he said, become President of the Republic.

"But he's not President yet!" cried Champeaux.

"If he's not so yet, as you say," said the man, "he's going to be, and he must already be thinking of his kitchen."

In order to rid himself of this scullion's obstinate ambition, Champeaux promised to bring his name before Lamartine so soon as the latter should be President of the Republic. The poor man went away quite satisfied, dreaming no doubt of the very imaginary splendours of his approaching condition.

I frequented Champeaux pretty assiduously during that time, although he was exceedingly vain, loquacious, and tedious, because, in talking with him, I became better acquainted with Lamartine's thoughts and projects than if I had been talking to the great man himself. Lamartine's intelligence was seen through Champeaux' folly as you see the sun through a smoked glass, which shows you the luminary deprived of its heat-rays, but less dazzling to the eye. I easily gathered that in this world every one was feeding on pretty well the same chimeras as the cook of whom I have just spoken, and that Lamartine already tasted at the bottom of his heart the sweets of that sovereign power which was nevertheless at that very moment escaping from his hands. He was then following the tortuous road that was so soon to lead him to his ruin, struggling to dominate the Mountain without overthrowing it, and to slacken the revolutionary fire without extinguishing it, so as to give the country a feeling of security strong enough for it to bless him, not strong enough to cause it to forget him. What he dreaded above all was that the conduct of the Assembly should b

e allowed to fall into the hands of the former parliamentary leaders. This was, I believe, at the time his dominant passion. One could see this during the great discussion on the constitution of the Executive Power; never did the different parties display more visibly the pedantic hypocrisy which induces them to conceal their interests beneath their ideas: an ordinary spectacle enough, but more striking at this time than usual, because the needs of the moment compelled each party to shelter itself behind theories which were foreign or even opposed to it. The old royalist party maintained that the Assembly itself should govern and choose its ministers: a theory that was almost demagogic; and the demagogues declared that the Executive Power should be entrusted to a permanent commission, which should govern and select all the agents of the government: a system that approached the monarchic idea. All this verbiage only meant that one side wished to remove Ledru-Rollin from power, and the other to keep him there.

The nation saw in Ledru-Rollin the bloody image of the Terror; it beheld in him the genius of evil as in Lamartine the genius of good, and it was mistaken in both cases. Ledru-Rollin was nothing more than a very sensual and sanguine heavy fellow, quite without principles and almost without brains, possessing no real courage of mind or heart, and even free from malice: for he naturally wished well to all the world, and was incapable of cutting the throats of any one of his adversaries, except, perhaps, for the sake of historical reminiscences, or to accommodate his friends.

The result of the debate remained long doubtful: Barrot turned it against us by making a very fine speech in our favour. I have witnessed many of these unforeseen incidents in parliamentary life, and have seen parties constantly deceived in the same way, because they always think only of the pleasure they themselves derive from their great orator's words, and never of the dangerous excitement he promotes in their opponents.

When Lamartine, who till then had kept silent and remained, I believe, in indecision, heard, for the first time since February, the voice of the ex-leader of the Left resounding with brilliancy and success, he suddenly made up his mind, and spoke. "You understand," said Champeaux to me the next day, "that before all it was necessary to prevent the Assembly from coming to a resolution upon Barrot's advice." So Lamartine spoke, and, according to his custom, spoke in brilliant fashion.

The majority, who had already adopted the course that Barrot had urged upon them, wheeled round as they listened to him (for this Assembly was more credulous and more submissive than any that I had ever seen to the wiles of eloquence: it was novice and innocent enough to seek for reasons for their decisions in the speeches of the orators). Thus Lamartine won his cause, but missed his fortune; for he that day gave rise to the mistrust which soon arose and hurled him from his pinnacle of popularity more quickly than he had mounted it. Suspicion took a definite form the very next day, when he was seen to patronize Ledru-Rollin and force the hand of his own friends in order to induce them to appoint the latter as his colleague on the Executive Commission. At this sight there arose in the Assembly and in the nation inexpressible disappointment, terror and rage. For my part, I experienced these two last emotions in the highest degree; I clearly perceived that Lamartine was turning out of the high-road that led us away from anarchy, and I could not guess into what abyss he might lead us if we followed the byways which he was treading. How was it possible, indeed, to foresee how far an always exuberant imagination might go, unrestrained by reason or virtue? Lamartine's common-sense impressed me no more than did his disinterestedness; and, in fact, I believed him capable of everything except cowardly behaviour or vulgar oratory.

I confess that the events of June to a certain extent modified the opinion I had formed of his manner of proceeding. They showed that our adversaries were more numerous, better organized and, above all, more determined than I had thought.

Lamartine, who had seen nothing but Paris during the last two months, and who had there, so to speak, lived in the very heart of the revolutionary party, exaggerated the power of the Capital and the inactivity of the rest of France. He over-estimated both. But I am not sure that I, on my side, did not strain a point on the other side. The road we ought to follow seemed to me so clearly and visibly traced that I would not admit the possibility of deviating from it by mistake; it seemed obvious to me that we should hasten to profit by the moral force possessed by the Assembly in order to escape from the hands of the people, seize upon the government, and by a great effort establish it upon a solid basis. Every delay seemed to me calculated to diminish our power, and to strengthen the hand of our adversaries.

It was, in fact, during the six months that elapsed between the opening of the Assembly and the events of June that the Paris workmen grew bold, and took courage to resist, organized themselves, procured both arms and ammunition, and made their final preparations for the struggle. In any case, I am led to believe that it was Lamartine's tergiversations and his semi-connivance with the enemy that saved us, while it ruined him. Their effect was to amuse the leaders of the Mountain, and to divide them. The Montagnards of the old school, who were retained in the Government, separated themselves from the Socialists, who were excluded from it. Had all been united by a common interest, and impelled by common despair before our victory, as they became since, it is doubtful whether that victory would have been won. When I consider that we were almost effaced, although we were opposed only by the revolutionary party without its leaders, I ask myself what the result of the contest would have been if those leaders had come forward, and if the insurrection had been supported by a third of the National Assembly.

Lamartine saw these dangers more closely and clearly than I, and I believe to-day that the fear of arousing a mortal conflict influenced his conduct as much as did his ambition. I might have formed this opinion at the time had I listened to Madame de Lamartine, whose alarm for the safety of her husband, and even of the Assembly, amounted to extravagance. "Beware," she said to me, each time she met me, "beware of pushing things to extremes; you do not know the strength of the revolutionary party. If we enter into conflict with it, we shall perish." I have often reproached myself for not cultivating Madame de Lamartine's acquaintance, for I have always found her to possess real virtue, although she added to it almost all the faults which can cling to virtue, and which, without impairing it, render it less lovable: an imperious temper, great personal pride, an upright but unyielding, and sometimes bitter, spirit; so much so that it was impossible not to respect her, and impossible to like her.

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