Tocqueville on the Revolution of 1848

While Tocqueville is a core part of the American canon, few realize how anti-democracy he was by the end of his life, especailly with regards to his home country of France:

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.

The quote comes from his book Recollections, which is a fascinating, first-hand account of the revolution of 1848. I knew nothing about the revolution, and had no idea Tocqueville was so involved in the events of the time. I’m also reading Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution. Between the two books I’m getting a very fair and nuanced picture of France from 1750-1850. Tocqueville is definitely in my top echelon of writers for even handedness, thoroughness, and accuracy of predictions.

Here are some more excerpts from Recollections:

I returned slowly home. I explained in a few words to Madame de Tocqueville what I had seen, and sat down in a corner to think. I cannot remember ever feeling my soul so full of sadness. It was the second revolution I had seen accomplish itself, before my eyes, within seventeen years!

I had spent the best days of my youth amid a society which seemed to increase in greatness and prosperity as it increased in liberty [Note this refers to the era of the Bourbon Restoration, 1815-1830]; I had conceived the idea of a balanced, regulated liberty, held in check by religion, custom and law ; the attractions of this liberty had touched me; it had become the passion of my life ; I felt that I could never be consoled for its loss, and that I must renounce all hope of its recovery.

I had gained too much experience of mankind to be able to content myself with empty words; I knew that, if one great revolution is able to establish liberty in a country, a number of succeeding revolutions make all regular liberty impossible for very many years.

I could not yet know what would issue from this last revolution, but I was already convinced that it could give birth to nothing that would satisfy me; and I foresaw that, whatever might be the lot reserved for our posterity, our own fate was to drag on our lives miserably amid alternate reactions of licence and oppression.

I began to pass in review the history of our last sixty years, and I smiled bitterly when I thought of the illusions formed at the conclusion of each period in this long revolution ; the theories on which these illusions had been fed ; the sapient dreams of our historians, and all the ingenious and deceptive systems by the aid of which it had been endeavoured to explain a present which was still incorrectly seen, and a future which was not seen at all.

The Constitutional Monarchy had succeeded the Ancien Regime; the Republic, the Monarchy; the Empire, the Republic; the Restoration, the Empire ; and then came the Monarchy of July. After each of these successive changes it was said that the French Revolution, having accomplished what was presumptuously called its work, was finished ; this had been said and it had been believed. Alas ! I myself had hoped it under the Restoration, and again after the fall of the Government of the Restoration; and here is the French Revolution beginning over again, for it is still the same one. As we go on, its endseems farther off and shrouded in greater darkness.

Shall we ever—as we are assured by other prophets, perhaps as delusive as their predecessors—shall we ever attain a more complete and more far-reaching social transformation than our fathers foresaw and desired, and than we ourselves are able to foresee ; or are we not destined simply to end in a condition of intermittent anarchy, the well-known chronic and incurable complaint of old races ?

As for me, I am unable to say ; I do not know when this long voyage will be ended; I am weary of seeing the shore in each successive mirage, and I often ask myself whether the terra firma we are seeking does really exist, and whether we are not doomed to rove upon the seas for ever.

Ampere [a friend of Tocqueville’s] held the fallen Government in great contempt, and its last actions had irritated him greatly. Moreover, he had witnessed many instances of courage, disinterestedness, and even generosity among the insurgents ; and he had been bitten by the popular excitement.

I saw that he not only did not enter into my view, but that he was disposed to take quite an opposite one. Seeing this, I was suddenly impelled to turn against Ampere all the feelings of indignation, grief and anger that had been accumulating in my heart since the morning ; and I spoke to him with a violence of language which I have often since recalled with a certain shame, and which none but a friendship so sincere as his could have excused. I remember saying to him, inter alia:

“You understand nothing of what is happening; you are judging like a poet or a Paris cockney. You call this the triumph of liberty, when it is its final defeat. I tell you that the people which you so artlessly admire has just succeeded in proving that it is unfit and unworthy to live a life of freedom. Show me what experience has taught it! Where are the new virtues it has gained, the old vices it has laid aside ? No, I tell you, it is always the same, as impatient, as thoughtless, as contemptuous of law and order, as easily led and as cowardly in the presence of danger as its fathers were before it. Time has altered it in no way, and has left it as frivolous in serious matters as it used to be in trifles.”

After much vociferation we both ended by appealing to the future, that enlightened and upright judge who always, alas! arrives too late.

Tocqueville ends up joining the republican parliament. His own province his mostly populated by yeoman landowners, who elect Tocqueville to help protect the country property owners from the socialist revolutionary tendencies of the Paris working class.

The first French Revolution had broken up numerous estates and created far more small landholdings. Thus when the 1848 revolution happened, the country voters were actually quite conservative in their votes, and voted for Napolean III in order to restore order.