De Tocqueville's Memoirs

THE publication of De Tocqueville’s Souvenirs 1 brings an unexpected pleasure, for we had supposed that the last of his posthumous works which his family would allow to appear had long ago been printed. France and Europe have changed their fashion in politics during the past forty years, but in spite of the prevalence of new ideals De Tocqueville remains the foremost French political philosopher of the first half of the century. He was not a system-maker, but the keen and profound critic of systems ; not an historian, but the analyst and classifier of principles which underlie those collective acts of a people which, when chronicled, are history. Other men, both during his lifetime and since his death, have enjoyed, as leaders of a political movement, a wider popularity than he enjoyed ; but their popularity has been transient, while his opinions endure, and must long endure, to be reckoned with by any one who would acquaint himself with the most significant political thought of our age.

Born in the midst of the Napoleonic upheaval, De Tocqueville witnessed the fall of the First Empire and the climax of the Second, with all that intervened; yet in this environment of revolution and recoil, of decaying old-world order and a chaos of new schemes, he never lost his head. At a time when doctrinaires vociferated, and each day produced its experiment or its formula, he was seduced by none of them. He understood that agitation, though necessary, was but a stage on the road to the reorganization of society, and, instead of plunging into the turmoils of the hour, he devoted himself to discovering the key to the new system toward which all agitations tended. He recognized that feudalism was dead; that constitutionalism and democracy had replaced it, but that constitutionalism itself might be the instrument of class supremacy, and that democracy, which, more than any other form of government, presupposes a high degree of popular intelligence and of civic disinterestedness, might, without these, become a terrible engine of despotism. He foresaw, too, that socialism, in one form or another, would insinuate itself into the new order.

Fortified in these views by long study of history, by investigation of existing institutions in America and Europe, and by intercourse with the principal politicians and thinkers of his time, De Tocqueville found himself, at the collapse of the July monarchy, in a unique position both to observe and direct events.

This volume of recollections covers the period from the abdication of Louis Philippe, February 24, 1848. to October, 1849. It is important, whether as a revelation of De Tocqueville’s own character, or as the testimony of an authoritative eye-witness of momentous events and the personages who took part in them. In these pages we see De Tocqueville, the political philosopher, brought face to face with practical affairs. He cannot now theorize calmly, but must act quickly ; yet bis characteristic habit of looking for essential principles does not, even in this emergency, desert him. These Souvenirs increase our admiration of his knowledge of political causes and of his perspicacity in reading men. We wish not so much to criticise as simply to call attention to some of the striking passages in his book.

De Tocqueville, like many others, had a presentiment that the July monarchy could not last; but neither he nor any one else foresaw the manner and moment of the catastrophe. The bourgeoisie, which had come into power in 1830, was doomed to a mortal struggle with the lower classes ; and the long and barren ministry of the “ sanctimonious ” Guizot, while maintaining quiet on the surface and while fostering commercial prosperity, did nothing to remove the causes which were leading up to the inevitable conflict. “ Very soon,” wrote De Toequeville, in October, 1849. " the political battle will be waged between those who have and those who have not. The great battlefield will be property, and the chief questions in politics will hinge on the modifications, more or less profound, to be wrought in the right of property - holders.” The multitude of political and social schemes which doctrinaires had been proposing for half a century all pointed, he saw, toward socialism. Nor did he fail to perceive that the government of the specious Citizen-King, Louis Philippe, lacked a firm foundation, though the king used all the corrupting agencies which his despotic instincts could suggest. The Chamber was packed with his minions ; a vast army of office-holders wore his livery ; the smallest hamlet had its postmaster and its gendarmes, who owed their places directly to the king; the ministers and their subordinates were his servile followers; and every dissenter who could be purchased was purchased by title or office. Yet when the revolution suddenly burst upon him, Louis Philippe, usually so glib and self - possessed, became speechless, resourceless, dazed, and almost without an effort he abdicated.

“ He had passed his life in the midst of revolutions,” says De Toequeville; “ and assuredly it was neither experience nor courage nor intelligence that he lacked, though they failed him so completely on that day. I believe that his weakness came from the excess of his surprise; lie was floored before he knew it. The revolution of February was unforeseen by all, but by him more than any one else ; no warning from the outside had prepared him for it, because, for several years, his spirit had withdrawn into that kind of haughty solitude where the mind of princes who have been long fortunate almost always dwells at last, — princes who, mistaking good fortune for genius, will hear nothing, because they think they can learn nothing more from any one. Moreover, Louis Philippe had been deceived, as I have already said his ministers were, by that delusive lustre which the history of past events throws on the present. . . . To twist the spirit of the constitution without altering its letter ; to play off the vices of the country one against the other ; to drown softly the revolutionary passion in material gratifications, — that had been his lifelong idea, and little by little had come to be not only his foremost, but his sole idea. In that he had shut himself up ; in that he had lived.” This, we believe, is a fair diagnosis of Louis Philippe’s case.

He fell on the morning of February 24, 1848, without glory; and so utterly was his hold on France destroyed that in a few hours men scarcely spoke of him. The house of Orleans would have vanished ignobly from the scene but for the courage of the Duchess of Orleans, who hastened to the Chamber in the hope of persuading the deputies to proclaim a regency. She sat at the foot of the tribune, " dressed in mourning, pale and calm. I saw, indeed,” says De Toequeville. “ that she was much moved ; but her emotion seemed to me that which brave souls feel, readier to be converted into heroism than into fright. The Count of Paris (her ten-year-old son) had the unconcern of his age, and the precocious impassivity of princes. Standing beside them was the Duke of Nemours. tightly clad in his uniform, erect, stiff, cold ; he was, I believe, the only man who ran a real peril that day. Daring all the time he was exposed, I beheld in him the same courage, firm and taciturn.” Whilst the royal party anxiously awaited a champion, all was confusion among the deputies. Those who yesterday had been obsequious Royalists dared not speak now. The hall began to fill with the populace. Then Barrot mounted the tribune and advocated a regency. Lamartine followed him in the same strain, but perfunctorily. It seemed as if every one were striving to gain time in order to know what to do. But the invasion of the rabble put an end to this indecision; the duchess and her kin were hurried away beyond reach of danger ; and presently a provisional government, of the republican species, was proclaimed.

In this new order, Lamartine held, temporarily, the place of honor. His popularity was immense, but, as often happens, history finds little to justify it; she inclines rather to accept this withering verdict which De Tocqueville passes on Lamartine: “ I know not if I have met, in the world of ambitions amid which I have lived, a spirit more empty than his of regard for the common weal. I have seen a crowd of men disturb the country to aggrandize themselves, — ’t is the perversity of the time, — but, he is the only one, I believe, who seemed to me always ready to overturn the world in order to amuse himself. Nor have I ever known a spirit less sincere, nor that had a more utter contempt for truth. When I say he despised truth, I err ; he did not honor it enough to heed it in any fashion. In speaking or in writing he wanders from and returns to it unconsciously. solely preoccupied by a certain effect which he wishes to produce at the moment.” Among politicians of supposed honor, is there any who has received a more damning judgment than this ? Beside it we will place De Tocqueville’s opinion of Ledru-Rollin, Lamartine’s colleague in the provisional government, and the parliamentary leader of the Red Republicans: “Ledru-Rollin was merely a very sensual and very fullblooded big fellow, unfurnished with principles and almost with ideas, without real audacity of head or heart, and even without wickedness ; for by nature he wished well to all the world, and was incapable of cutting the throat of any of his adversaries, unless perchance through historical reminiscence or as a favor to his friends.”

While the provisional government was busy in attempting to restore order, appeasing the masses by establishing national workshops, which quickly became national Castles of Indolence, De Tocqueville went down to his home in the department of the Blanche, and offered himself as a candidate for the Constituent Assembly. The provinces, which had not kept step with the Parisian radicals, did not sympathize with the socialist tendencies of the revolution, and they sent to the Assembly a majority of members pledged to moderate or conservative principles. De Tocqueville himself was elected almost without opposition. Very touching is his description of the loyal affection of his tenants, — a bit of oldworld life contrasting strangely with the very modern tumultuous life into which he plunged on his return to the capital. There the baleful effects of Louis Blanc’s national workshops and of the policy of concession to masses goaded on by demagogues were already visible. Plainly enough, the real battle was at hand. To those masses, the downfall of Louis Philippe and the change of government meant nothing, Unless the new government should gratify the appetites which the demagogues excited in them. Very soon the masses discovered that the new Assembly was too moderate for them, and, feeling that they had been duped, they proposed to sweep it away. How nearly they succeeded, on May 15, De Tocqueville relates with much vividness and sang-froid. For many hours on that day the hall of the Assembly was in the hands of a mob, from which, if infuriated, the deputies might expect no quarter. Most of them kept their accustomed places, agitated, but hoping that some of their number would display energy equal to the emergency. Lamartine saw that the game was beyond him, and so he sat combing his hair, matted with perspiration. On another bench was Lacordaire, the Dominican. “ His long and bony neck issuing from his white cowl, his bald head encircled by a fringe of black hair, his pinched face, his hooked nose, his eyes near together, fixed and brilliant,” reminded De Tocqueville of a vulture. Buchez, the president, strove frantically to preserve order ; but the mob still poured in, noisy, fierce, unmanageable. “Then it was,” says De Tocqueville, “ that I saw appear in the tribune a man whom I never saw except that day, but the recollection of whom has always filled me with disgust and horror: he had wan and withered cheeks, white lips, a sickly, evil, and unclean air, a dirty pallor, the aspect of a mouldy body, no linen visible, an old black frock coat glued to his slim, fleshless limbs. He seemed to have lived in a sewer, and to have emerged from it. They told me it was Blanqui.” Nevertheless, this obnoxious Blanqui and his comrades had dispersed the Assembly, and were about to seize the government of Paris, when the unexpected intervention of national guards restored the deputies to their hall, and prevented further disturbance on that day.

De Toequeville remarks to how great a degree the revolutionists of 1848 consciously imitated the revolutionists of 1789. Histories, poems, and plays had made familiar to the later revolutionists the acts and even the gestures of their fathers. To succeed, the men of 1848 thought they must copy as nearly as possible their models: hence a revival of old terms ; hence, also, a certain staginess. Thus the radical deputies called themselves “the Mountain,” and the Feast of Pikes was mimicked in the Feast of Concord. Nevertheless, the leaders of 1848 knew very well that the conflict in which they were engaged differed widely from that which had crushed the old régime.

Another fact which De Tocqueville makes clear is the almost uniform courage of the men of 1848. He speaks severely of the integrity of many of his contemporaries ; he condemns the political principles of some, he discloses the inability of others; but, so far as we recall, he mentions only one as being a coward. That one was Thiers, who, on February 24, took to flight at the first alarm, and who, during the tremendous insurrection of June, threw his arms round Lamoricière’s neck and embraced him, when Lamoricière’s bravery had rid the Château d’Eau of insurgents. “ I could not help smiling when I saw this effusion,” says De Tocqueville. “ because there was no love lost between them ; but great danger is like wine, — it makes men fond.” This general courage is the more remarkable, because there can be no doubt that the revolution of 1848 inspired throughout France and Europe greater alarm than had been inspired in 1789. The later generation had the example before them of the bloody excesses of the earlier ; they knew that a movement which begins in a demand for reform may end in a reign of terror ; they knew, too, the vehemence of class animosity. Their bravery had, in many cases, the aspect of a desperate resignation ; and though most of the deputies, at least, were not afraid to die, they were so completely astonished that they could do little but wait for events to come to them. De Tocqueville himself, however, visited the barricades and the posts of peril with reckless nonchalance, realizing, as he did, the folly of jeoparding one’s life for mere curiosity. Thanks to his recklessness, we have in this book many graphic descriptions of Paris during these stormy times.

We cannot review his account of the revision of the constitution, in which work he took a prominent part; nor can we relate the intrigues by which, in June, 1849, Louis Napoleon, who had been elected president in the previous December, strove to form a cabinet of “ his own men,” but was compelled at last to nominate Dufaure, Lanjuinais, and De Tocqueville. Even thus early, it was evident not only that Louis Napoleon aimed at the supreme power, but also that he could be restrained from attaining it only by the union of disunited and mutually hostile parties. Perceiving that such a coalition could not be arranged, De Tocqueville hoped, by kindling an honest ambition in the president, to keep him true to the constitution. As minister of foreign affairs, De Tocqueville, during the four months he held office, proved himself a skillful diplomatist. Unfortunately, his Souvenirs end just as he is on the point of explaining his attitude towards the short-lived Roman republic. We could wish that he had thrown light on that outrageous interference with the liberty of brother republicans.

We cannot conclude more fitly than by quoting the chief traits of the portrait which De Tocqueville has drawn of Louis Napoleon, who had been chosen president " not because of his worth, but because of his presumed mediocrity.” He had, " as a private man, certain engaging qualities : a benevolent and easy humor, a humane character, a gentle and even tender sotd without being delicate, much steadiness in his relations, perfect simplicity, a certain modesty in person amid the immense pride which his origin caused him. Capable of feeling affection, he could inspire it in those who approached him. His conversation was infrequent and barren. . . . His dissimulation, which was deep as that of a man who had passed his life in conspiracies, was singularly aided by the immobility of his features and the insignificance of his look; for his eyes were dull and opaque, like those thick bull’s-eyes which light the stateroom of a ship, letting the light pass through, but out of which one can see nothing. Very careless of danger, he had fine, cool courage in days of crisis, and at the same time he was very vacillating in His designs, which is common enough. . . . He had always been, it is said, much addicted to pleasures, and little delicate in his choice. . . . His intelligence was incoherent, confused, filled with great thoughts ill digested, which he borrowed now from the examples of Napoleon, and now from socialist theories, and occasionally from his recollections of England, where he had lived. . . . He was naturally a dreamer and chimerical. But when forced to come out of these vague and vast regions, to confine his mind within the limits of some affair, this proved to he capable of precision, sometimes of finesse and breadth, and even of a certain depth, but never sure, and always ready to place a bizarre thought beside a sensible one. . . . We may say, on the whole, that it was his folly more than his reason which, thanks to circumstances, made his success and his force. . . . He trusted in his star ; he believed firmly that he was the instrument of destiny and the indispensable man. . . . Though he had a sort of abstract adoration for the people, he felt little inclination for liberty. In politics, his characteristic and fundamental trait was hatred and contempt for assemblies. The régime of constitutional monarchy appeared more insupportable to him even than that of the republic. . . . Before attaining power he had time to strengthen the taste which mediocre princes always have for flunkies, by the habits of twenty years of conspiracies passed among adventurers of low degree, men ruined or tainted, and young debauchees, — the only persons who, during all that time, had consented to serve him as toadies or accomplices. He himself, through his good manners, let something appear which smacked of the adventurer and the chance prince. He continued to content himself in the midst of this subaltern company, when he was no longer obliged to live with it. . . . He desired above all to find devotion to his person and his cause, as if his person and his cause could have engendered it; merit bothered him, if it were in the least independent. He required believers in his star and vulgar worshipers of his fortune.”

  1. Souvenirs de Alexis de Tocqueville. Publiés par le COMTE DE TOCQUEVILLE. Paris : Calmann Lévy. 1893.