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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 17456

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The revolutionaries of 1848, unwilling or unable to imitate the bloodthirsty follies of their predecessors, consoled themselves by imitating their ludicrous follies. They took it into their heads to give the people a series of grand allegorical festivals.

Despite the terrible condition of the finances, the Provisional Government had decided that a sum of one or two millions should be spent upon celebrating the Feast of Concord in the Champ-de-Mars.

According to the programme, which was published in advance and faithfully followed out, the Champ-de-Mars was to be filled with figures representing all sorts of persons, virtues, political institutions, and even public services. France, Germany and Italy, hand in hand; Equality, Liberty and Fraternity, also hand in hand; Agriculture, Commerce, the Army, the Navy and, above all, the Republic; the last of colossal dimensions. A car was to be drawn by sixteen plough-horses: "this car," said the programme aforesaid, "will be of a simple and rustic shape, and will carry three trees, an oak, a laurel, and an olive tree, symbolizing strength, honour, and plenty; and, moreover, a plough in the midst of a group of flowers and ears of corn. Ploughmen and young girls dressed in white will surround the car, singing patriotic hymns." We were also promised oxen with gilded horns, but did not get them.

The National Assembly had not the smallest desire to see all these beautiful things; it even feared lest the immense gathering of people which was sure to be occasioned should produce some dangerous riot. Accordingly, it put the date as far back as possible; but the preparations were made, there was no possibility of going back from it, and the date was fixed for the 21st of May.

On that day I went early to the Assembly, which was to proceed on foot, in a body, to the Champ-de-Mars. I had put my pistols in my pockets, and in talking to my colleagues I discovered that most of them were secretly armed, like myself: one had taken a sword-stick, another a dagger; nearly all carried some weapon of defence. Edmond de La Fayette showed me a weapon of a peculiar kind. It was a ball of lead sewn into a short leathern thong which could easily be fastened to the arm: one might have called it a portable club. La Fayette declared that this little instrument was being widely carried by the National Assembly, especially since the 15th of May. It was thus that we proceeded to this Feast of Concord.

A sinister rumour ran that some great danger awaited the Assembly when it should cross through the crowd of the Champ-de-Mars and take up its place on the stage reserved for it outside the Military College. As a matter of fact, nothing could have been easier than to make it the object of an unexpected attack during this progress, which it made on foot and, so to speak, unguarded. Its real safeguard lay in the recollection of the 15th of May, and that sufficed. It very rarely happens, whatever opportunity may present itself, that a body is affronted the day after its triumph. Moreover, the French never do two things at a time. Their minds often change their object, but they are always devoted wholly to that occupying them at the moment, and I believe there is no precedent of their making an insurrection in the middle of a fête or even of a ceremony. On this day, therefore, the people seemed to enter willingly into the fictitious idea of its happiness, and for a moment to place on one side the recollection of its miseries and its hatreds. It was animated, without being turbulent. The programme had stated that a "fraternal confusion" was to prevail. There was, it is true, extreme confusion, but no disorder; for we are strange people: we cannot do without the police when we are orderly, and so soon as we start a revolution, the police seem superfluous. The sight of this popular joyfulness enraptured the moderate and sincere Republicans, and made them almost maudlin. Carnot observed to me, with that silliness which the honest democrat always mingles with his virtue:

"Believe me, my dear colleague, one should always trust the people."

I remember rather brusquely replying, "Ah! why didn't you tell me that before the 15th?"

The Executive Commission occupied one half of the immense stage that had been erected along the Military College, and the National Assembly the other. There first defiled past us the different emblems of all nations, which took an enormous time, because of the fraternal confusion of which the programme spoke. Then came the car, and then the young girls dressed in white. There were at least three hundred of them, who wore their virginal costume in so virile a fashion that they might have been taken for boys dressed up as girls. Each had been given a big bouquet to carry, which they were so gallant as to throw to us as they passed. As these gossips were the owners of very nervous arms, and were more accustomed, I should think, to using the laundress's beetle than to strewing flowers, the bouquets fell down upon us in a very hard and uncomfortable hail-storm.

One tall girl left her companions and, stopping in front of Lamartine, recited an ode to his glory. Gradually she grew excited in talking, so much so that she pulled a terrible face and began to make the most alarming contortions. Never had enthusiasm seemed to me to come so near to epilepsy. When she had finished, the people insisted at all costs that Lamartine should kiss her; she offered him two fat cheeks, streaming with perspiration, which he touched with the tip of his lips and with indifferent bad grace.

The only serious portion of the fête was the review. I have never seen so many armed men in one spot in my life, and I believe that few have seen more. Apart from the innumerable crowd of sight-seers in the Champ-de-Mars, one saw an entire people under arms. The Moniteur estimated the number of National Guards and soldiers of the line who were there at three hundred thousand. This seemed to me to be exaggerated, but I do not think that the number could be reduced to less than two hundred thousand.

The spectacle of those two hundred thousand bayonets will never leave my memory. As the men who carried them were tightly pressed against one another, so as to be able to keep within the slopes of the Champ-de-Mars, and as we, from our but slightly raised position, could only throw an almost horizontal glance upon them, they formed, to our eyes, a flat and lightly undulating surface, which flashed in the sun and made the Champ-de-Mars resemble a great lake filled with liquid steel.

All these men marched past us in succession, and we noticed that this army numbered many more muskets than uniforms. Only the legions from the wealthier parts of the town presented a large number of National Guards clad in military uniform. They were the first to appear, and shouted, "Long live the National Assembly!" with much enthusiasm. In the legions from the suburbs, which formed in themselves veritable armies, one saw little but jackets and blouses, though this did not prevent them from marching with a very warlike aspect. Most of them, as they passed us, were content to shout, "Long live the Democratic Republic!" or to sing the Marseillaise or the song of the Girondins. Next came the legions of the outskirts, composed of peasants, badly equipped, badly armed, and dressed in blouses like the workmen of the suburbs, but filled with a very different spirit to that of the latter, as they showed by their cries and gestures. The battalions of the Garde Mobile uttered various exclamations, which left us full of doubt and anxiety as to the intention of these lads, or rather children, who at that time more than any other held our destinies in their hands.

The regiments of the line, who closed the review, marched past in silence.

I witnessed this long parade with a heart filled with sadness. Never at any time had so many arms been placed at once into the hands of the people. It will be easily believed that I shared neither the simple confidence nor the stupid happiness of my friend Carnot; I foresaw, on the contrary, that all the bayonets I saw glittering in the sun would soon be raised against each other, and I felt that I was at a review of the two armies of the civil war that was just concluded. In the course of that day I still heard frequent shouts of "Long live Lamartine!" although his great popularity was already waning. In fact, one might say it was over, were it not that in every crowd one meets with a large number of belated individuals who are stirred with the enthusiasm of yesterday, like the provincials who begin to adopt the Paris mode on the day when the Parisi

ans abandon it.

Lamartine hastened to withdraw from this last ray of his sun: he retired long before the ceremony was finished. He looked weary and care-worn. Many members of the Assembly, also overcome with fatigue, followed his example, and the review ended in front of almost empty benches. It had begun early and ended at night-fall.

The whole time elapsing between the review of the 21st of May and the days of June was filled with the anxiety caused by the approach of these latter days. Every day fresh alarms came and called out the army and the National Guard; the artisans and shopkeepers no longer lived at home, but in the public places and under arms. Each one fervently desired to avoid the necessity of a conflict, and all vaguely felt that this necessity was becoming more inevitable from day to day. The National Assembly was so constantly possessed by this thought that one might have said that it read the words "Civil War" written on the four walls of the House.

On all sides great efforts of prudence and patience were being made to prevent, or at least delay, the crisis. Members who in their hearts were most hostile to the revolution were careful to restrain any expressions of sympathy or antipathy; the old parliamentary orators were silent, lest the sound of their voices should give umbrage; they left the rostrum to the new-comers, who themselves but rarely occupied it, for the great debates had ceased. As is common in all assemblies, that which most disturbed the members' minds was that of which they spoke least, though it was proved that each day they thought of it. All sorts of measures to help the misery of the people were proposed and discussed. We even entered readily into an examination of the different socialistic systems, and each strove in all good faith to discover in these something applicable to, or at least compatible with, the ancient laws of Society.

During this time, the national workshops continued to fill; their population already exceeded one hundred thousand men. It was felt that we could not live if they were kept on, and it was feared that we should perish if we tried to dismiss them. This burning question of the national workshops was treated daily, but superficially and timidly; it was constantly touched upon, but never firmly taken in hand.

On the other hand, it was clear that, outside the Assembly, the different parties, while dreading the contest, were actively preparing for it. The wealthy legions of the National Guard offered banquets to the army and to the Garde Mobile, in which they mutually urged each other to unite for the common defence.

The workmen of the suburbs, on their side, were secretly amassing that great number of cartridges which enabled them later to sustain so long a contest. As to the muskets, the Provisional Government had taken care that these should be supplied in profusion; one could safely say that there was not a workman who did not possess at least one, and sometimes several.

The danger was perceived afar off as well as near at hand. The provinces grew indignant and irritated with Paris; for the first time for sixty years they ventured to entertain the idea of resisting it; the people armed themselves and encouraged each other to come to the assistance of the Assembly; they sent it thousands of addresses congratulating it on its victory of the 15th of May. The ruin of commerce, universal war, the dread of Socialism made the Republic more and more hateful in the eyes of the provinces. This hatred manifested itself especially beneath the secrecy of the ballot. The electors were called upon to re-elect in twenty-one departments; and in general they elected the men who in their eyes represented the Monarchy in some form or other. M. Molé was elected at Bordeaux, and M. Thiers at Rouen.

It was then that suddenly, for the first time, the name of Louis Napoleon came into notice. The Prince was elected at the same time in Paris and in several departments. Republicans, Legitimists and demagogues gave him their votes; for the nation at that time was like a frightened flock of sheep, which runs in all directions without following any road. I little thought, when I heard that Louis Napoleon had been nominated, that exactly a year later I should be his minister. I confess that I beheld the return of the old parliamentary leaders with considerable apprehension and regret; not that I failed to do justice to their talent and discretion, but I feared lest their approach should drive back towards the Mountain the moderate Republicans who were coming towards us. Moreover, I knew them too well not to see that, so soon as they had returned to political life, they would wish to lead it, and that it would not suit them to save the country unless they could govern it. Now an enterprise of this sort seemed to me both premature and dangerous. Our duty and theirs was to assist the moderate Republicans to govern the Republic without seeking to govern it indirectly ourselves, and especially without appearing to have this in view.

For my part, I never doubted but that we were on the eve of a terrible struggle; nevertheless, I did not fully understand our danger until after a conversation that I had about this time with the celebrated Madame Sand. I met her at an Englishman's of my acquaintance: Milnes,[10] a member of Parliament, who was then in Paris. Milnes was a clever fellow who did and, what is rarer, said many foolish things. What a number of those faces I have seen in my life of which one can say that the two profiles are not alike: men of sense on one side, fools on the other. I have always seen Milnes infatuated with something or somebody. This time he was smitten with Madame Sand, and notwithstanding the seriousness of events, had insisted on giving her a literary déje?ner. I was present at this repast, and the image of the days of June, which followed so closely after, far from effacing the remembrance of it from my mind, recalls it.

The company was anything but homogeneous. Besides Madame Sand, I met a young English lady, very modest and very agreeable, who must have found the company invited to meet her somewhat singular; some more or less obscure writers; and Mérimée. Milnes placed me next to Madame Sand. I had never spoken to her, and I doubt whether I had ever seen her (I had lived little in the world of literary adventurers which she frequented). One of my friends asked her one day what she thought of my book on America, and she answered, "Monsieur, I am only accustomed to read the books which are presented to me by their authors." I was strongly prejudiced against Madame Sand, for I loathe women who write, especially those who systematically disguise the weaknesses of their sex, instead of interesting us by displaying them in their true character. Nevertheless, she pleased me. I thought her features rather massive, but her expression admirable: all her mind seemed to have taken refuge in her eyes, abandoning the rest of her face to matter; and I was particularly struck at meeting in her with something of the naturalness of behaviour of great minds. She had a real simplicity of manner and language, which she mingled, perhaps, with some little affectation of simplicity in her dress. I confess that, more adorned, she would have appeared still more simple. We talked for a whole hour of public affairs; it was impossible to talk of anything else in those days. Besides, Madame Sand at that time was a sort of politician, and what she said on the subject struck me greatly; it was the first time that I had entered into direct and familiar communication with a person able and willing to tell me what was happening in the camp of our adversaries. Political parties never know each other: they approach, touch, seize, but never see one another. Madame Sand depicted to me, in great detail and with singular vivacity, the condition of the Paris workmen, their organization, their numbers, their arms, their preparations, their thoughts, their passions, their terrible resolves. I thought the picture overloaded, but it was not, as subsequent events clearly proved. She seemed to be alarmed for herself at the popular triumph, and to take the greatest pity upon the fate that awaited us.

"Try to persuade your friends, monsieur," she said, "not to force the people into the streets by alarming or irritating them. I also wish that I could instil patience into my own friends; for if it comes to a fight, believe me, you will all be killed."

With these consoling words we parted, and I have never seen her since.


[10] The Right Honble. Monckton Milnes, the late Lord Houghton.-A.T. de M.

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