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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville By Alexis de Tocqueville Characters: 32728

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The ministry was composed as follows:

Minister of Justice and President of the Council Barrot.

Finance Passy.

War Rulhière.

Navy Tracy.

Public Works Lacrosse.

Public Instruction Falloux.

Interior Dufaure.

Agriculture Lanjuinais.

Foreign Affairs Tocqueville.

Dufaure, Lanjuinais and I were the only new ministers; all the others had belonged to the previous Cabinet.

Passy was a man of real merit, but not of a very attractive merit. His mind was narrow, maladroit, provoking, disparaging and ingenious rather than just. Nevertheless, he was more inclined to be just when it was really necessary to act than when it was only a question of talking; for he was more fond of paradox than liable to put it into practice. I never knew a greater talker, nor one who so easily consoled himself for troublesome events by explaining the causes which had produced them and the consequences likely to ensue. When he had finished drawing the most sombre picture of the state of affairs, he concluded with a smiling and placid air, saying, "So that there is practically no means of saving ourselves, and we have only to look forward to the total overthrow of Society." In other respects he was a cultured and experienced minister; his courage and honesty were proof against everything; and he was as incapable of vacillation as of treachery. His ideas, his feelings, his former intimacy with Dufaure and, above all, his eager animosity against Thiers made us certain of him.

Rulhière would have belonged to the monarchic and ultra-conservative party if he had belonged to any, and especially if Changarnier had not been in the world; but he was a soldier who only thought of remaining Minister for War. We perceived at the first glance his extreme jealousy of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Paris; and the intimacy between the latter and the leaders of the majority, and his influence over the President, obliged Rulhière to throw himself into our arms, and forcibly drove him to depend upon us.

Tracy had by nature a weak character, which was, as it were, enclosed and confined in the very precise and systematic theories which he owed to the ideological education he had received from his father.[16] But, in the end, contact with every-day events and the shock of revolutions had worn out this rigid envelope, and all that remained was a wavering intelligence and a sluggish, but always honest and kindly, heart.

Lacrosse was a poor devil whose private affairs were more or less involved. The chances of the Revolution had driven him into office from an obscure corner of the Opposition, and he never grew weary of the delight of being a minister. He gladly leant upon us, but he endeavoured at the same time to make sure of the good-will of the President of the Republic by rendering him all sorts of little services and small compliments. To tell the truth, it would have been difficult for him to recommend himself in any other way, for he was a rare nonentity, and understood nothing about anything. We were reproached for taking office in company with such incapable ministers as Tracy and Lacrosse, and not without justice, for it was a great cause of ruin: not only because they did their work badly, but because their notorious insufficiency kept their succession always open, so to speak, and created a sort of permanent ministerial crisis.

As to Barrot, he adhered naturally to us from feeling and ideas. His old liberal associations, his republican tastes, his Opposition memories attached him to us. Had he been differently connected, he might have become, however regretfully, our adversary; but, having him once among us, we were sure of him.

Of all the Ministry, therefore, only Falloux was a stranger to us by his starting-point, his engagements, and his inclinations. He alone represented the leaders of the majority on the Council, or rather he seemed to represent them, for in reality, as I will explain later, he represented, besides himself, nothing but the Church. This isolated position, together with the secret aims of his policy, drove him to seek support beyond us; he strove to establish it in the Assembly and with the President, but discreetly and cleverly, as he did everything.

Thus constituted, the Cabinet had one great weakness: it was about to govern with the aid of a composite majority, without itself being a coalition ministry. But, on the other hand, it possessed the very great strength which ministers derive from uniform origin, identical instincts, old bonds of friendship, mutual confidence, and common ends.

I shall doubtless be asked what these ends were, where we were going, what we wanted. We live in times so uncertain and so obscure that I should hesitate to reply to that question in the name of my colleagues; but I will readily reply for myself. I did not believe then, any more than I do now, that the republican form of government is the best suited to the needs of France. What I mean when I say the republican form of government, is the elective Executive Power. With a people among whom habit, tradition, custom have assured so great a place to the Executive Power, its instability will always be, in periods of excitement, a cause of revolution, and in peaceful times, a cause of great uneasiness. Moreover, I have always considered the Republic an ill-balanced form of government, which always promised more, but gave less, liberty than the Constitutional Monarchy. And yet I sincerely wished to maintain the Republic; and although there were, so to speak, no Republicans in France, I did not look upon the maintenance of it as absolutely impossible.

I wished to maintain it because I saw nothing ready or fit to set in its place. The old Dynasty was profoundly antipathetic to the majority of the country. Amid this flagging of all political passion, which was the result of the fatigue of the revolutions and their vain promises, one genuine passion remained alive in France: hatred of the Ancien Régime and mistrust of the old privileged classes who represented it in the eyes of the people. This sentiment passes through revolutions without dissolving in them, like the water of those marvellous fountains which, according to the ancients, passed across the waves of the sea without mixing with or disappearing in them. As to the Orleans Dynasty, the experience the people had had of it did not particularly incline them to return to it so soon. It was bound once more to throw into Opposition all the upper classes and the clergy, and to separate itself from the people, as it had done before, leaving the cares and profits of government to those same middle classes whom I had already seen during eighteen years so inadequate for the good government of France. Moreover, nothing was ready for its triumph.

Louis Napoleon alone was ready to take the place of the Republic, because he already held the power in his hands. But what could come of his success, except a bastard Monarchy, despised by the enlightened classes, hostile to liberty, governed by intriguers, adventurers, and valets?

The Republic was doubtless difficult to maintain; for those who favoured it were, for the most part, incapable or unworthy of governing it, while those who were fit to conduct it detested it. But it was also rather difficult to pull down. The hatred borne for it was an easy-going hatred, as were all the passions which the country then entertained. Besides, the Government was found fault with, but no other was loved in its place. Three parties, mutually irreconcilable, more hostile to one another than either of them was to the Republic, contended with each other for the future. As to a majority, there was no such thing.

I thought, therefore, that the Government of the Republic, having existence in its favour, and having no adversaries except minorities difficult to coalesce, would be able to maintain its position amid the inertia of the masses, if it was conducted with moderation and wisdom. For this reason, I was resolved not to lend myself to any steps that might be taken against it, but rather to defend it. Almost all the members of the Council thought as I did. Dufaure believed more than I did in the soundness of republican institutions and in their future. Barrot was less inclined than I to keep them always respected; but we all wished at the present time firmly to maintain them. This common resolution was our political bond and standard.

So soon as the Ministry was formed, it repaired to the President of the Republic to hold a Council. It was the first time I had come into contact with him. I had only seen him at a distance at the time of the Constituent Assembly. He received us with politeness. It was all we could expect from him, for Dufaure had acted vigorously against him, and had spoken almost outrageously of his candidature no longer than six months ago, while both Lanjuinais and myself had openly voted for his opponent.

Louis Napoleon plays so great a part in the rest of my narrative that he seems to me to deserve a special portrait amid the host of contemporaries of whom I have been content to sketch the features. Of all his ministers, and perhaps of all the men who refused to take part in his conspiracy against the Republic, I was the one who was most advanced in his good graces, who saw him closest, and who was best able to judge him.

He was vastly superior to what his preceding career and his mad enterprises might very properly have led one to believe of him. This was my first impression on conversing with him. In this respect he deceived his adversaries, and perhaps still more his friends, if this term can be applied to the politicians who patronized his candidature. The greater part of these, in fact, elected him, not because of his merits, but because of his presumed mediocrity. They expected to find in him an instrument which they could handle as they pleased, and which it would always be lawful for them to break when they wished to. In this they were greatly deceived.

As a private individual, Louis Napoleon possessed certain attractive qualities: an easy and kindly humour, a mind which was gentle, and even tender, without being delicate, great confidence in his intercourse, perfect simplicity, a certain personal modesty amidst the immense pride derived from his origin. He was capable of showing affection, and able to inspire it in those who approached him. His conversation was brief and unsuggestive. He had not the art of drawing others out or of establishing intimate relations with them; nor any facility in expressing his views. He had the writer's habit, and a certain amount of the author's self-love. His dissimulation, which was the deep dissimulation of a man who has spent his life in plots, was assisted in a remarkable way by the immobility of his features and his want of expression: for his eyes were dull and opaque, like the thick glass used to light the cabins of ships, which admits the light but cannot be seen through. Careless of danger, he possessed a fine, cool courage in days of crisis; and at the same time-a common thing enough-he was very vacillating in his plans. He was often seen to change his direction, to advance, hesitate, draw back, to his great detriment: for the nation had chosen him in order to dare all things, and what it expected from him was audacity and not prudence. It was said that he had always been greatly addicted to pleasures, and not very dainty in his choice of them. This passion for vulgar enjoyment and this taste for luxury had increased still more with the facilities offered by his position. Each day he wore out his energy in indulgence, and deadened and degraded even his ambition. His intelligence was incoherent, confused, filled with great but ill-assorted thoughts, which he borrowed now from the examples of Napoleon, now from socialistic theories, sometimes from recollections of England, where he had lived: very different, and often very contrary, sources. These he had laboriously collected in his solitary meditations, far removed from the contact of men and facts, for he was naturally a dreamer and a visionary. But when he was forced to emerge from these vague, vast regions in order to confine his mind to the limits of a piece of business, it showed itself to be capable of justice, sometimes of subtlety and compass, and even of a certain depth, but never sure, and always prepared to place a grotesque idea by the side of a correct one.

Generally, it was difficult to come into long and very close contact with him without discovering a little vein of madness running through his better sense, the sight of which always recalled the escapades of his youth, and served to explain them.

It may be admitted, for that matter, that it was his madness rather than his reason which, thanks to circumstances, caused his success and his force: for the world is a strange theatre. There are moments in it when the worst plays are those which succeed best. If Louis Napoleon had been a wise man, or a man of genius, he would never have become President of the Republic.

He trusted in his star; he firmly believed himself to be the instrument of destiny and the necessary man. I have always believed that he was really convinced of his right, and I doubt whether Charles X. was ever more infatuated with his legitimism than he with his. Moreover, he was quite as incapable of alleging a reason for his faith; for, although he had a sort of abstract adoration for the people, he had very little taste for liberty. The characteristic and fundamental feature of his mind in political matters was his hatred of and contempt for assemblies. The rule of the Constitutional Monarchy seemed to him even more insupportable than that of the Republic. His unlimited pride in the name he bore, which willingly bowed before the nation, revolted at the idea of yielding to the influence of a parliament.

Before attaining power he had had time to strengthen his natural taste for the footman class, which is always displayed by mediocre princes, by the habits of twenty years of conspiracy spent amid low-class adventurers, men of ruined fortunes or blemished reputations, and young debauchees, the only persons who, during all this time, could have consented to serve him as go-betweens or accomplices. He himself, in spite of his good manners, allowed a glimpse to pierce through of the adventurer and the prince of fortune. He continued to take pleasure in this inferior company after he was no longer obliged to live in it. I believe that his difficulty in expressing his thoughts otherwise than in writing attached him to people who had long been familiar with his current of thought and with his dreamings, and that his inferiority in conversation rendered him generally averse to contact with clever men. Moreover, he desired above all things to meet with devotion to his person and his cause, as though his person and his cause were such as to be able to arouse devotion: merit annoyed him when it displayed ever so little independence. He wanted believers in his star, and vulgar worshippers of his fortune.

This was the man whom the need of a chief and the power of a memory had placed at the head of France, and with whom we would have to govern.

It would be difficult to imagine a more critical moment in which to assume the direction of affairs. The Constituent Assembly, before ending its turbulent existence, had passed a resolution, on the 7th of June 1849, prohibiting the Government from attacking Rome. The first thing I learnt on entering the Cabinet was that the order to attack Rome had been sent to the army three days before. This flagrant disobedience of the injunctions of a sovereign Assembly, this war undertaken against a people in revolution, because of its revolution, and in defiance of the terms of the Constitution which commanded us to respect all foreign nationalities, made inevitable and brought nearer the conflict which we dreaded. What would be the issue of this new struggle? All the letters from prefects of departments that were laid before us, all the police reports that reached us were calculated to throw us into great alarm. I had seen, at the end of the Cavaignac Administration, how a government can be supported in its visionar

y hopes by the self-interested complaisance of its agents. This time I saw, and much more closely, how these same agents can work to increase the terror of those who employ them: contrary effects produced by the same cause. Each one of them, judging that we were uneasy, wished to signalize himself by the discovery of new plots, and in his turn to supply us with some fresh indication of the conspiracy which threatened us. The more they believed in our success, the more readily they talked to us of our danger. For it is one of the dangerous characteristics of this sort of information, that it becomes rarer and less explicit in the measure that the peril increases and the need for information becomes greater. The agents in that case, doubting the duration of the government which employs them, and already fearing its successor, either scarcely speak at all or keep absolute silence. But now they made a great noise. To listen to them, it was impossible not to think that we were on the edge of an abyss, and yet I did not believe a word of it. I was quite convinced then, as I have been ever since, that official correspondence and police reports, which may be useful for purposes of consultation when there is question of discovering a particular plot, only serve to give exaggerated and incomplete and invariably false notions when one wishes to judge or foresee great movements of parties. In a matter of this kind, it is the aspect of the whole country, the knowledge of its needs, its passions and its ideas, that can instruct us, general data which one can procure for one's self, and which are never supplied by even the best placed and best accredited agents.

The sight of these general facts had led me to believe that at this moment no armed revolution was to be feared: but a combat was; and the expectation of civil war is always cruel, especially when it comes in time to join its fury to that of pestilence. Paris was at that time ravaged by cholera. Death struck at all ranks. Already a large number of members of the Constituent Assembly had succumbed; and Bugeaud, whom Africa had spared, was dying.

Had I entertained a moment's doubt as to the imminence of the crisis, the aspect alone of the new Assembly would have clearly announced it to me. It is not too much to say that one breathed the atmosphere of civil war in its midst. The speeches were short, the gestures violent, the words extravagant, the insults outrageous and direct. We met for the present in the old Chamber of Deputies. This room, built for 460 members, had difficulty in containing 750. The members, therefore, sat touching, while detesting, each other; they pressed one against the other in spite of the hatred which divided them; the discomfort increased their anger. It was a duel in a barrel. How would the Montagnards be able to restrain themselves? They saw that they were sufficiently numerous to entitle them to believe themselves very strong in the country and in the army. Yet they remained too weak in Parliament to hope to prevail or even to count there. They were offered a fine occasion of resorting to force. All Europe, which was still in commotion, might with one great blow, struck in Paris, be thrown into revolution anew. This was more than was necessary for men of such savage temper.

It was easy to foresee that the movement would burst forth at the moment when it should become known that the order had been given to attack Rome and that the attack had taken place. And this was what in fact occurred.

The order given had remained secret. But on the 10th of June, the report of the first combat became current.

On the 11th, the Mountain burst into furious speech. Ledru-Rollin made an appeal from the tribune for civil war, saying that the Constitution had been violated and that he and his friends were ready to defend it by every method, including that of arms. The indictment was demanded of the President of the Republic and of the preceding Cabinet.

On the 12th, the Committee of the Assembly, instructed to examine the question raised the day before, rejected the impeachment and called upon the Assembly to pronounce, where it sat, upon the fate of the President and Ministers. The Mountain opposed this immediate discussion and demanded that documents should be laid before it. What was its object in thus postponing the debate? It was difficult to say. Did it hope that this delay would complete the general irritation, or did it in its heart of hearts wish to give it time to calm down? One thing is certain, that its principal leaders, those who were more accustomed to speaking than to fighting, and who were passionate rather than resolute, displayed that day, amid all the intemperance of their language, a sort of hesitation of which they had given no sign the day before. After half drawing the sword from the scabbard, they appeared to wish to replace it; but it was too late, the signal had been observed by their friends outside, and thenceforward they no longer led, but were led in their turn.

During these two days, my position was most cruel. As I have already stated, I disapproved entirely of the manner in which the Roman expedition had been undertaken and conducted. Before joining the Cabinet, I had solemnly declared to Barrot that I declined to take any responsibility except for the future, and that he must himself be prepared to defend what had up to that time been done in Italy. I had only accepted office on this condition. I therefore kept silent during the discussion on the 11th, and allowed Barrot to bear the brunt of the battle alone. But when, on the 12th, I saw my colleagues threatened with an impeachment, I considered that I could no longer abstain. The demand for fresh documents gave me an opportunity to intervene, without having to express an opinion upon the original question. I did so vigorously, although in very few words.

On reading over this little speech in the Moniteur, I cannot but think it very insignificant and badly turned. Nevertheless, I was applauded to the echo by the majority, because in moments of crisis, when one is in danger of civil war, it is the movement of thought and the accent of one's words which make an impression, rather than their value. I directly attacked Ledru-Rollin. I accused him with violence of only wanting troubles and of spreading lies in order to create them. The feeling which impelled me to speak was an energetic one, the tone was determined and aggressive, and although I spoke very badly, being as yet unaccustomed to my new part, I met with much favour.

Ledru replied to me, and told the majority that they were on the side of the Cossacks. They answered that he was on the side of the plunderers and the incendiaries. Thiers, commenting on this thought, said that there was an intimate relation between the man they had just listened to and the insurgents of June. The Assembly rejected the demand for an impeachment by a large majority, and broke up.

Although the leaders of the Mountain continued to be outrageous, they had not shown any great firmness, so that we were able to flatter ourselves that the decisive moment for the struggle had not yet arrived. But this was a mistake. The reports which we received during the night told us that the people were preparing to take up arms.

On the next day, in fact, the language of the demagogic papers proclaimed that the editors no longer relied upon justice, but upon a revolution, to acquit them. All of them called either directly or indirectly for civil war. The National Guard, the schools, the entire population was summoned by them to repair, unarmed, to a certain locality, in order to go and present themselves in mass before the doors of the Assembly. It was a 23rd of June which they wished to commence with a 15th of May; and, in fact, seven or eight thousand people did meet at about eleven o'clock at the Chateau-d'Eau. We on our side held a Council under the President of the Republic. The latter was already in uniform, and prepared to go out on horseback so soon as he should be told that the fighting had commenced. For the rest, he had changed nothing except his clothes. He was exactly the same man as on the day before: the same rather dejected air, his speech no less slow and no less embarrassed, his eye no less dull. He showed none of that sort of warlike excitement and of rather feverish gaiety which the approach of danger so often gives: an attitude which is perhaps, after all, no more than the sign of a mind disturbed.

We sent for Changarnier, who explained his preparations to us, and guaranteed a victory. Dufaure communicated to us the reports he had received, all of which told of a formidable insurrection. He then left for the Ministry of the Interior, which was the centre of action, and at about mid-day I repaired to the Assembly.

The House was some time before it met, because the President, without consulting us, had declared, when arranging the Order of the Day on the evening before, that there would be no public sitting on the next day, a strange blunder which would have looked like treachery in anyone else. While messengers were being despatched to inform the members at their own houses, I went to see the President of the Assembly in his private room: most of the leaders of the majority were there before me. Every face bore traces of excitement and anxiety; the contest was both feared and demanded. They began by vehemently accusing the Ministry of slackness. Thiers, lying back in a big arm-chair, with his legs crossed one over the other, sat rubbing his stomach (for he felt certain symptoms of the prevailing epidemic), loudly and angrily exclaiming, in his shrillest falsetto, that it was very strange that no one seemed to think of declaring Paris in a state of siege. I replied gently that we had thought of it, but that the moment had not yet come to do so, since the Assembly had not yet met.

The members arrived from every side, attracted less by the messages despatched to them, which most of them had not even received, than by the rumours prevalent in the town. The sitting was opened at two o'clock. The benches of the majority were well filled, but the top of the Mountain was deserted. The gloomy silence which reigned in this part of the House was more alarming than the shouts which came from that quarter as a rule. It was a proof that discussion had ceased, and that the civil war was about to commence.

At three o'clock, Dufaure came and asked that the state of siege should be proclaimed in Paris. Cavaignac seconded him in one of those short addresses which he sometimes delivered, and in which his mind, which was naturally middling and confused reached the level of his soul and approached the sublime. Under these circumstances he became, for a moment, the man of the most genuine eloquence that I have ever heard speak in our Assemblies: he left all the mere orators far behind him.

"You have just said," he exclaimed, addressing the Montagnard[17] who was leaving the tribune, "that I have fallen from power. That is not true: I retired voluntarily. The national will does not overthrow; it commands, and we obey. I add-and I want the republican party always to be able to say so with justice: I retired voluntarily, and, in so doing, my conduct did honour to my republican convictions. You said that we lived in terror: history is observing us, and will pronounce when the time comes. But what I say to you myself is this, that although you have not succeeded in inspiring me with a feeling of terror, you have inspired me with a feeling of profound sorrow. Shall I tell you one thing more? You are Republicans of long standing; whereas I have not worked for the Republic before its foundation, I have not suffered for it, and I regret that this is so; but I have served it faithfully, and I have done more: I have governed it. I shall serve nothing else, understand me well! Write it down, take it down in shorthand, so that it may remain engraved upon the annals of our deliberations: I shall serve nothing else! Between you and me, I take it, it is a question as to which of us will serve the Republic best. Well then, my regret is, that you have served it very badly. I hope, for the sake of my country, that it is not destined to fall; but if we should be condemned to undergo so great a blow, remember-remember distinctly-that we shall accuse your exaggerations and your fury as being the cause of it."

Shortly after the state of siege had been proclaimed, we learnt that the insurrection had been extinguished. Changarnier and the President, charging at the head of the cavalry, had cut in two and dispersed the column which was making its way towards the Assembly. A few newly-erected barricades had been destroyed, without striking a blow. The Montagnards, surrounded in the Conservatoire of Arts and Crafts, which they had turned into their head-quarters, had either been arrested or taken to flight. We were the masters of Paris.

The same movement took place in several of the large towns, with more vigour but no less success. At Lyons, the fighting lasted stubbornly for five hours, and the victory was for a moment in doubt. But for that matter, when we were once victorious in Paris, we distressed ourselves very little about the provinces; for we knew that in France, in matters both of order and of disorder, Paris lays down the law.

Thus ended the second Insurrection of June, very different to the first by the extent of its violence and its duration, but similar in the causes which led to its failure. At the time of the first, the people, carried away less by their opinions than by their appetites, had fought alone, without being able to attract their representatives to their head. This time the representatives had been unable to induce the people to follow them into battle. In June 1848, the army had no leaders; in June 1849, the leaders had no army.

They were singular personages, those Montagnards: their quarrelsome nature and their self-conceit were displayed even in measures which least allowed of it. Among those who, in their newspapers and in their own persons, had spoken most violently in favour of civil war, and who had done the most to cover us with insults, was Considérant, the pupil and successor of Fourier, and the author of so many socialistic dreams which would only have been ridiculous at any other time, but which were dangerous in ours. Considérant succeeded in escaping with Ledru-Rollin from the Conservatoire, and in reaching the Belgian frontier. I had formerly had social relations with him, and when he arrived in Brussels, he wrote to me:

My dear Tocqueville,

(Here followed a request for a service which he asked me to do for him, and then he went on):

"Rely upon me at all times for any personal service. You are good for two or three months perhaps, and the pure Whites who will follow you are good for six months at the longest. You will both of you, it is true, have well deserved what is infallibly bound to happen to you a little sooner or a little later. But let us talk no more politics and respect the very legal, very loyal, and very Odilon Barrotesque state of siege."

To this I replied:

My dear Considérant,

"I have done what you ask. I do not wish to take advantage of so small a service, but I am very pleased to ascertain, by the way, that those odious oppressors of liberty, the Ministers, inspire their adversaries with so much confidence that the latter, after outlawing them, do not hesitate to apply to them to obtain what is just. This proves that there is some good left in us, whatever may be said of us. Are you quite sure that if the position had been inverted, I should have been able to act in the same way, I will not say towards yourself, but towards such and such of your political friends whom I might mention? I think the contrary, and I solemnly declare to you that if ever they become the masters, I shall consider myself quite satisfied if they only leave my head upon my shoulders, and ready to declare that their virtue has surpassed my greatest expectations."


[16] Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, 1754-1836, the celebrated ideologist, Condillac's disciple.-A.T. de M.

[17] Pierre Leroux.

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