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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 20797

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

While I was thus occupied in witnessing upon the private stage of Germany one act of the great drama of the European Revolution, my attention was suddenly drawn towards France and fixed upon our affairs by unexpected and alarming news. I heard of the almost incredible check received by our army beneath the walls of Rome, the violent debates which followed in the Constituent Assembly, the excitement produced throughout the country by these two causes, and lastly, the General Election, whose result deceived the expectations of both parties and brought over one hundred and fifty Montagnards into the new Assembly. However, the demagogic wind which had suddenly blown over a part of France had not prevailed in the Department of la Manche. All the former members for the department who had separated from the Conservative Party in the Assembly had gone under in the scrutin. Of thirteen representatives only four had survived; as for me, I had received more votes than all the others, although I was absent and silent, and although I had openly voted for Cavaignac in the previous month of December. Nevertheless, I was almost unanimously elected, less because of my opinions than of the great personal consideration which I enjoyed outside politics, an honourable position no doubt, but difficult to retain in the midst of parties, and destined to become very precarious on the day when the latter should themselves become exclusive as they became violent.

I set out as soon as I received this news. At Bonn a sudden indisposition obliged Madame de Tocqueville to stop. She herself urged me to leave her and to continue my journey, and I did so, although with regret; for I was leaving her alone in a country still agitated by civil war; and moreover, it is in moments of difficulty or peril that her courage and her great sense are so helpful to me.

I arrived in Paris, if I am not mistaken, on the 25th of May 1849, four days before the meeting of the Legislative, and during the last convulsions of the Constituent Assembly. A few weeks had sufficed to make the aspect of the political world entirely unrecognizable, owing less to the changes which had taken place in outside facts, than to the prodigious revolution which had in a few days taken place in men's minds.

The party which was in power at my departure was so still, and the material result of the elections should, I thought, have strengthened its hands. This party, composed of so many different parties, and wishing either to stop or drive back the Revolution, had obtained an enormous majority in the electoral colleges, and would command more than two-thirds of the new Assembly. Nevertheless, I found it seized with so profound a terror that I can only compare it with that which followed February: so true is it that in politics one must argue as in war, and never forget that the effect of events should be measured less by what they are in themselves than by the impressions they give.

The Conservatives, who for six months had seen all the bye-elections invariably turning to their advantage, who filled and dominated almost all the local councils, had placed an almost unlimited confidence in the system of universal suffrage, after professing unbounded distrust of it. In the General Election which was just decided, they had expected not only to conquer but to annihilate, so to speak, their adversaries, and they were as much cast down at not attaining the absolute triumph which they had dreamt of as though they had really been beaten. On the other hand, the Montagnards, who had thought themselves lost, were as intoxicated with joy and mad audacity as though the elections had assured them a majority in the new Assembly. Why had the event thus at the same time deceived the hopes and fears of both parties? It is difficult to say for certain, for great masses of men move by virtue of causes almost as unknown to humanity itself as those which rule the movements of the sea. In both cases the reasons of the phenomenon are concealed and, in a sense, lost in the midst of its immensity.

We are, at any rate, entitled to believe that the Conservatives owed their rebuff mainly to the faults which they themselves committed. Their intolerance, when they thought their triumph assured, of those who, without sharing their ideas, had assisted them in fighting the Montagnards; the violent administration of the new Minister of the Interior, M. Faucher; and more than all, the poor success of the Roman expedition prejudiced against them a portion of the people who were naturally disposed to follow them, and threw these into the arms of the agitators.

One hundred and fifty Montagnards, as I said, had been elected. A part of the peasantry and the majority of the army had voted for them: it was the two anchors of mercy which had snapped in the midst of the tempest. Terror was universal: it taught anew to the various monarchical parties the tolerance and modesty which they had practised immediately after February, but which they had to a great extent forgotten during the past six months. It was recognized on every hand that there could no longer be any question, for the present, of emerging from the Republic, and that all that remained to be done was to oppose the moderate Republicans to the Montagnards.

The same ministers whom they had created and instigated they now accused, and a modification of the Cabinet was loudly demanded. The Cabinet itself saw that it was insufficient, and implored to be replaced. At the time of my departure I had seen the committee of the Rue de Poitiers refuse to admit the name of M. Dufaure to its lists; I now saw every glance directed towards M. Dufaure and his friends, who were called upon in the most pathetic manner to take office and save society.

On the night of my arrival, I heard that some of my friends were dining together at a little restaurant in the Champs-Elysées. I hastened to join them, and found Dufaure, Lanjuinais, Beaumont, Corcelles, Vivien, Lamoricière, Bedeau, and one or two more whose names are not so well known. I was informed in a few words of the position of affairs. Barrot, who had been invited by the President to form a cabinet, had for some days been exhausting himself in vain efforts to do so. M. Thiers, M. Molé and the more important of their friends had refused to undertake the government. They had made up their minds, nevertheless, as will be seen, to remain its masters, but without becoming ministers. The uncertainty of the future, the general instability, the difficulties and perhaps the dangers of the moment kept them aloof. They were eager enough for power, but not for responsibility. Barrot, repulsed on that side, had come to us. He asked us, or rather he besought us, to become his colleagues. But which among us to choose? What ministries to allot to us? What colleagues to give us? What general policy to adopt? From all these questions had arisen difficulties in execution which, till then, seemed insurmountable. Already, more than once, Barrot had returned towards the natural chiefs of the majority; and repelled by them, had fallen back upon us.

Time passed amid these sterile labours; the dangers and difficulties increased; the news became each day more alarming, and the Ministry were liable at any moment to be impeached by the dying but furious Assembly.

I returned home greatly preoccupied, as will be believed, by what I had heard. I was convinced that it only depended upon the wishes of myself and my friends to become ministers. We were the necessary and obvious men. I knew the leaders of the majority well enough to be sure that they would never commit themselves to taking charge of affairs under a government which seemed to them so ephemeral, and that, even if they had the disinterestedness, they would not have the courage to do so. Their pride and their timidity assured me of their abstention. It was enough for us, therefore, to stand firm on our ground to compel them to come and fetch us. But ought we to wish to become ministers? I asked myself this very seriously. I think I may do myself the justice to say that I did not indulge in the smallest illusion respecting the true difficulties of the enterprise, and that I looked upon the future with a clearness of view which we rarely possess except when we consider the past.

Everybody expected to see fighting in the streets. I myself regarded it as imminent; the furious audacity which the result of the elections had imparted to the Mountain and the opportunity afforded to it by the Rome affair seemed to make an event of this kind inevitable. I was not, however, very anxious about the issue. I was convinced that, although the majority of the soldiers had voted for the Mountain, the army would fight against it without hesitation. The soldier who individually votes for a candidate at an election and the soldier acting under pressure of esprit de corps and military discipline are two different men. The thoughts of the one do not regulate the actions of the other. The Paris garrison was very numerous, well commanded, experienced in street warfare, and still filled with the memory of the passions and examples which had been left to it by the days of June. I therefore felt certain of victory. But I was very anxious as to the eventual results of this victory: what seemed to others the end of the difficulties I regarded as their commencement. I considered them almost insurmountable, as I believe they really were.

In whichever direction I looked, I saw no solid or lasting stand-point for us.

Public opinion looked to us, but it would have been unsafe to rely upon it for support; fear drove the country in our direction, but its memories, its secret instincts, its passions could scarcely fail soon to withdraw it from us, so soon as the fear should have vanished. Our object was, if possible, to found the Republic, or at least to maintain it for some time, by governing it in a regular, moderate, conservative, and absolutely constitutional way; and this could not allow us to remain popular for long, since everybody wanted to evade the Constitution. The Mountain wanted more, the Monarchists much less.

In the Assembly it was much worse still. The same general causes were aggravated by a thousand accidents arising from the interests and vanities of the party leaders.

The latter were quite content to allow us to assume the government, but we must not expect them to allow us to govern. So soon as the crisis was passed, we might expect every sort of ambush on their part.

As to the President, I did not know him yet, but it was evident that we could not rely upon him to support us in his Council, except where the jealousy and hatred were concerned with which our common adversaries inspired him. His sympathies must always lie in an opposite direction; for our views were not only different, but naturally opposed to one another. We wanted to make the Republic live: he longed for its inheritance. We only supplied him with ministers where he wanted accomplices.

To these difficulties, which were in a sense inherent to the situation and consequently permanent, were added passing ones which it was not at all easy to surmount: the revolutionary agitation revived in part of the country; the spirit and habits of exclusion spread and already rooted in the public administration; the Roman expedition, so badly conceived and so badly conducted that it was now as difficult to bring it to an end as to get out of it; in fact, the whole legacy of mistakes committed by our predecessors.

There were reasons enough for hesitation; and yet I did not hesitate. The idea of taking a post from which fear kept so many people off, and of relieving society from the bad pass in which it had been involved, flattered at the same time my sense of honour and my pride. I was quite aware that I should only be passing through power, and that I should not stay there; but I hoped to stay long enough to be able to render some signal service to my country and to raise myself. This was enough to attract me.

I at once took three resolutions:

First, not to refuse office if an opportunity offered;

Second, only to enter the Government together with my principal friends, directing the principal offices, so that we might always remain the masters of the Cabinet;

Third and last, to behave every day when in office as though I was to be out of it the next day, that is to say, without ever subordinating to the necessity of maintaining my position that of remaining true to myself.

The next five or six days were wholly taken up in fruitless endeavours to form a ministry. The attempts made were so numerous, so overlapping, so full of small incidents-great events of one day forgotten the next-that I find it difficult to retrace them in my memory, in spite of the prominent part which I myself played in some of them. The problem was undoubtedly a difficult one to solve under its given conditions. The President was willing enough to change the appearance of his ministry, but he was determined to retain in it the men whom he considered his principal friends. The leaders of the Monarchical parties refused themselves to take the responsibility of government; but they were not willing either that it should be entrusted entirely to men over whom they had no hold. If they consented to admit us, it was only in a very small number and in second-rate offices. We were looked upon as a necessary but disagreeable remedy, which it was preferable only to administer in very small doses.

Dufaure was first asked to join alone, and to be satisfied with the Public Works. He refused, demanded the Interior, and two other offices for his friends. After much difficulty they agreed to give him the Interior, but they refused the rest. I have reason to believe that he was at one time on the point of accepting this proposal and of again leaving me in the lurch, as he had done six months ago. Not that he was treacherous or indifferent in his friendships; but the sight of this important office almost within reach, which he could honestly accept, possessed a strange attraction for him. It did not precisely cause him to abandon his friends, but it distracted his thoughts from them, and made him ready to forget them. He was firm, however, this time; and not being able to get him by himself, they offered to take me with him. I was most in view at that time, because the new Legislative Assembly had just elected me one of its vice-presidents.[14] But what office to give me? I only thought myself fit to fill the Ministry of Public Instruction. Unfortunately that was in the hands of M. de Falloux, an indispensable man, whom it was equally important to the Legitimists to retain, of whom he was one of the leaders; to the religious party, who saw in him a protector; and finally to the President, of whom he had become the friend. I was offered Agriculture, and refused it. At last, in despair, Barrot came and asked me to accept the Foreign Office. I myself had made great efforts to persuade M. de Rémusat to accept this office, and what happened on this occasion between him and me is so characteristic that it is worthy of being retold. I was very anxious that M. de Rémusat should join the ministry with us. He was at once a friend of M. Thiers and a man of honour, a rather unusual combination; he alone was able to assure us, if not the support, at least the neutrality of that statesman, without infesting us with his spirit. Overcome by the insistency of Barrot and the rest of us, Rémusat one evening yielded. He had pledged us his word, but the next morning he came to withdraw it. I knew for certain that he had seen M. Thiers in the interval, and he confessed to me himself that M. Thiers, who was then loudly proclaiming the necessity of our accepting office, had dissuaded him from joining us. "I fully saw," he said, "that to become your colleague would not be to give you his assistance, but only to expose myself to be quarrelling with him before long." Those were the sort of men we had to deal with.

I had never thought of the Foreign Office, and my first impulse was to refuse it. I thought myself unsuited to fill an office for which nothing had prepared me. Among my papers I have found a trace of these hesitations, in the notes of a conversation which took place at a dinner which some of my friends and I had at that time....

I decided at last, however, to accept the Foreign Office, but I made it a condition that Lanjuinais should enter the Council at the same time as myself. I had many very strong reasons for acting as I did. In the first place, I thought that three ministers were indispensable to us in order to acquire the preponderance in the Cabinet which we needed in order to do any good. I thought, moreover, that Lanjuinais would be very useful to keep Dufaure himself within the lines I wished to follow. I did not consider myself to have enough hold over him. Above all, I wanted to have near me a friend with whom I could talk openly of all things: a great advantage at any time, but especially in such times of suspicion and variableness as ours, and for a work as hazardous as that which I was undertaking.

From all these different points of view Lanjuinais suited me admirably, although we were of very dissimilar natures. His humour was as calm and placid as mine was restless and anxious. He was methodical, slow, indolent, prudent, and even over-scrupulous, and he was very backward to enter upon any undertaking; but having once entered upon it he never drew back, and showed himself until the end as resolved and stubborn as a Breton of the true stamp. He was very slow in giving his opinion, and very explicit, and even candid to the verge of rudeness, when he did give it. One could not expect from his friendship either enthusiasm, ardour, or abandon; on the other hand, one need not dread either faint-heartedness, treachery, or after-thoughts. In short, he was a very safe associate, and taken all round, the most honourable man I ever met in public life. Of all of us, it was he who seemed to me least to mix his private or interested views with his love of the public good.

No one objected to the name of Lanjuinais; but the difficulty was to find him a portfolio. I asked for him that of Commerce and Agriculture, which had been held since the 20th of December by Buffel, a friend of Falloux. The latter refused to let his colleague go; I insisted; and the new Cabinet, which was almost complete, remained for twenty-four hours as though dissolved. To conquer my resolution, Falloux attempted a direct measure: he came to my house, where I lay confined to my bed, urged me, begged me to give up Lanjuinais and to leave his friend Buffel at the Ministry of Agriculture. I had made up my mind, and I closed my ears. Falloux was vexed, but retained his self-control and rose to go. I thought everything had gone wrong: on the contrary, everything had gone right.

"You are determined," he said, with that aristocratic good grace with which he was able to cover all his feelings, even the bitterest; "you are determined, and so I must yield. It shall not be said that a private consideration has, at so difficult and critical a period, made me break off so necessary a combination. I shall remain alone in the midst of you. But I hope you will not forget that I shall be not only your colleague but your prisoner!"

One hour later the Cabinet was formed,[15] and Dufaure, who told me of it, invited me to take immediate possession of the Foreign Office.

Thus was born this Ministry which was so painfully and slowly formed and which was destined to have so short an existence. During the long childbirth that preceded it, the man who was at the greatest trouble in France was certainly Barrot: his sincere love for the public weal inclined him to desire a change of cabinet, and his ambition, which was more intimately and narrowly bound up with his honesty than might have been believed, made him long with unequalled ardour to remain at the head of the new Cabinet. He therefore went incessantly to and fro from one to the other, addressing very pathetic and sometimes very eloquent objurations to every one, now turning to the leaders of the majority, now to us, now again to the new Republicans, whom he regarded as more moderate than the others. And for that matter, he was equally inclined to carry either one or the other with him; for in politics he was incapable of either hatred or friendship. His heart is an evaporating vase, in which nothing remains.


[14] 1 June 1849, by 336 votes to 261.

[15] The Presidential decree is dated 2 June 1849.

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