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Tocqueville’s Private Thoughts About The French Revolution Revealed


This essay is reprinted, with permission, from the blog of the Library of Law and Liberty.

Although intellectuals write endlessly about politics, relatively few enter the fray directly. One exception was the author of “Democracy in America” (1835, 1840) and “The Old Regime and the Revolution” (1856). These texts effectively serve as bookends to Alexis de Tocqueville’s active, albeit unsuccessful career during the turbulent years of France’s July monarchy, the short-lived Second Republic, and finally the Second Empire established by that most enigmatic of political adventurers, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Tocqueville served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies for much of King Louis-Philippe’s 18-year reign, a member of the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a new constitution following the February 1848 Revolution, a deputy of the new republic’s Legislative Assembly and, briefly, as minister of foreign affairs in the Second Republic’s dying days. These commitments didn’t, however, prevent him from putting many observations on paper.

The content and tone of the texts presented in “Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath,” newly translated by the doyen of Tocqueville translators, Arthur Goldhammer, and carefully edited by the historian Olivier Zunz, contrast with the detached analysis that permeates Tocqueville’s best-known books. “Recollections” contains Tocqueville’s thoughts “in the raw” as a participant in the upheavals that shook France between 1848 and 1853.

‘To Preserve the Freedom to Portray Without Flattery’

Tocqueville is very explicit about why he is imposing this task upon himself: “I want to preserve the freedom to portray without flattery both myself and my contemporaries, in total independence. I wish to lay bare the secret motives that led me and my colleagues and others to act as we did, and when I have understood those motives, to describe them.”

As he engages in this exercise, Tocqueville’s “Recollections” cover three periods. The first concerns the February 1848 Revolution itself. This is followed by Tocqueville’s observations of the subsequent election campaigns, his time as a member of the Constituent Assembly drafting a new constitution, and the insurrection of Parisian radicals known as the “June Days” (June 23 to June 26, 1848). Lastly, Tocqueville considers his time as a legislator and minister for foreign affairs during Prince Louis-Napoléon’s presidency. All this is supplemented by various pieces of correspondence and notes Tocqueville composed during this same late 1840s-early 1850s period and deemed relevant by the editor.

Tocqueville told his family and friends that these writings should not be published in his lifetime. It does not take long for readers to understand why. They contain uninhibited and at times brutally candid sketches of some of the most important actors in French politics of the period. These portraits have been enhanced by the editor’s inclusion of often hilarious illustrations of some of these individuals by the incomparable caricaturist and painter, Honoré Daumier.

What Tocqueville Thinks of His Contemporary Greats

Tocqueville turns out to have held almost all his fellow politicians in low regard. On numerous occasions, he underscores the greed for power and barely hidden corruption of the members of the political establishment. Even one of Tocqueville’s most important intellectual mentors, the historian François Guizot, is censured for declining to implement basic reforms when he had an opportunity to do so as one of Louis-Philippe’s ministers.

That pales, however, next to Tocqueville’s denunciation of the conservative Orléanist and future president of the Third Republic, Adolphe Thiers. He is depicted as a coward for fleeing from the mob in 1848 and behaving in a “deranged and agitated manner” in a time of crisis. Apparently Thiers learned his lesson. Twenty-three years later, he would have no compunction about ordering the French army, led by the conservative Catholic officer and future president of the Third Republic, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, to ruthlessly suppress the revolutionary uprising of radical socialists, proto-communists, and anarchists during the Paris Commune.

As for the most important player during these years, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Tocqueville describes him as having “some appealing qualities” such as “a humane manner,” “a certain modesty,” and “cool courage.” These, however, were offset by—among other things on Tocqueville’s extensive list of the future emperor’s flaws—a tendency to be “fond of flatterers,” a habit of surrounding himself with “crooks and scoundrels . . . good-for-nothings and painted women,” and “a thin vein of insanity” that corroded the future emperor’s common sense.

The one institution Tocqueville praised during this period—albeit in a qualified way—is the Catholic Church. The clergy, Tocqueville says, did not make the mistake of publically aligning themselves with any of the political factions struggling for power in the wake of the July monarchy’s collapse. The church was thus spared the violence it had experienced between 1790 and 1800.

Yet this did not inhibit Tocqueville from observing that one of his fellow members of the Constituent Assembly, the famous Dominican preacher Henri Lacordaire, bore an uncanny resemblance to a “vulture.” He was also clearly puzzled by Lacordaire’s decision to sit with the assembly’s hard-left members. Nor did Tocqueville refrain from criticizing those Catholic politicians and clerics who sought to closely associate the church with Louis-Napoléon’s presidency or their endorsement of the prince-president’s successful coup d’état of 1851.

Bringing Order and Liberty to Disordered Tyranny

Tocqueville, however, was doing more than simply reacting to events and personalities around him. His “Recollections” also seek to show that his primary political objective was to help establish a constitutional system that guaranteed liberty and order in a country seemingly unable to combine these two political commitments in a stable manner. To realize this end, Tocqueville worked with people from a variety of political persuasions. They ranged from adherents of the elder branch of the Bourbon dynasty to conservative and liberal republicans. Tocqueville doesn’t disguise the fact that this coalition-building involved making compromises he found deeply distasteful.

This is, of course, one dimension of politics that frustrates intellectuals. At different points, it clearly grated on Tocqueville, not least because he struggled to find men of principle with whom he could work to give life to his vision of a society characterized by ordered liberty. In the year following Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup, Tocqueville even wrote to the Bourbon pretender, the Comte de Chambord, urging him to associate the claims of traditional monarchy with “lawful liberty” and the “spirit of liberty.” This, Tocqueville believed, might help stabilize France while simultaneously helping it to escape “the apparatus of absolutism” and “imperial despotism.”

In the midst of all this political maneuvering, Tocqueville refused to have any dealings with one segment of opinion. Some first-time readers of the “Recollections” may be surprised, if not shocked, to discover just how much Tocqueville loathed Jacobins, socialists, and the radical left in general. Throughout the “Recollections,” he refers to them derisively—but, as it turned out, accurately—as “Reds.” These groups are portrayed as inimical not only to liberty and order but to civilization itself. Their goal, Tocqueville comments, was “not to change the form of government but to alter the order of society.” Another way he expressed this hostility was to say: “Wherever I see liberty, there is no socialism.”

Consider Tocqueville’s description of one of the most prominent revolutionary socialist leaders: Louis-Auguste Blanqui. He is presented as someone “whose memory has filled me with disgust and horror,” not to mention “sickly, nasty, and filthy, with the sallow pallor of a rotting corpse” who “looked as though he had just emerged from a sewer.” Here it’s worth noting that Blanqui’s unswerving commitment to violence in the pursuit of radical goals, which appalled Tocqueville at the level of both means and ends, exerted considerable influence on Vladimir Lenin but also Benito Mussolini.

Don’t Treat the ‘Reds’ With Kid Gloves

Tocqueville’s visceral reaction to the “Reds” matters because what immediately struck him about the February 1848 Revolution was that it “had not been just primarily but solely and exclusively a popular uprising that had bestowed all power on ‘the people’ in the strict sense of the term, meaning the classes that work with their hands.”

He regarded them as demagogues, their ideas as bordering on criminality, and their motives as rooted in envy and malice.

The socialist politicians, says Tocqueville, were the most dangerous because “they more fully reflected the true character of the February Revolution and the passions it unleashed.” It was, he adds, fortunate that they were “more men of theory than men of action.” One cannot help but recall that figures like Lenin—that rare intellectual who was also a consummate man of action—studied the 1848 revolution in great detail to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes.

Nor did Tocqueville believe that radical socialists or other revolutionary elements could be handled with kid gloves. He regarded them as demagogues, their ideas as bordering on criminality, and their motives as rooted in envy and malice. This may help explain why Tocqueville does not hide his enthusiastic support for the Provisional Government’s decision to call in the regular army and the National Guard under the command of Gen. Louis-Eugène Cavaignac to engage in what Tocqueville acknowledges was the take-no-prisoners crushing of the June Days uprising.

His readiness to support those willing to act directly, even mercilessly, against those bent on the destruction of life, liberty, and property was one reason Tocqueville belonged to what was called the Parti de l’Ordre. This grouping of moderate monarchists and conservative republicans had no truck with Bonapartism or absolutism. But it was even more opposed to the radical Left’s naked thuggery. The repression of the June Days insurrectionists by what he calls “our forces” was “awful” but also “necessary.”

The Rare Power of Self-Criticism

Tocqueville’s most active involvement in government occurred when he accepted Prince-President Louis-Napoléon’s invitation to become foreign affairs minister in the government of Prime Minister Odilon Barrot (another member of the Parti de l’Ordre) in June 1849. Tocqueville held the position for just five months, leaving office when Louis-Napoléon dismissed Barrot’s cabinet.

The quintessential man of theory discovered that he had his limits as a man of action.

His “Recollections” illustrate that Tocqueville never really doubted that Louis-Napoléon’s ultimate objective was to restore the empire his uncle had established in 1804. Tocqueville tried nonetheless to work with Louis-Napoléon. On several occasions, he told Louis-Napoléon “I will not help you overthrow the Republic but I will help you find an important permanent place in it.” Tocqueville was still canvassing the possibility of constitutional revisions that might allow Louis-Napoléon to serve more than one presidential term when he, like many deputies, was arrested during the 1851 coup, before being released and effectively exiting French politics.

While Tocqueville was severe in his disapproval of most of the political figures with whom he interacted during his political years, his “Recollections” also display a degree of self-criticism that isn’t generally politicians’ forte . Especially striking is his admission of his relative ineffectuality at influencing the course of events. Tocqueville was no determinist. But the quintessential man of theory discovered that he had his limits as a man of action.

Tocqueville regrets, for instance, his lack of oratorical skills. He also acknowledges his inhibitions about engaging in the incessant networking that is part of democratic politics. He laments his inability to master that most important of political skills: remembering people’s names. Put another way, the skills and interests of the aristocrat-cum-intellectual turned out to be of limited relevance in the new world of democracy—at least as it manifested itself in the Second Republic. Tocqueville made this point explicit in an 1852 speech to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques when he astonished his learned colleagues by telling them that one of his intellectual heroes, the Baron de Montesquieu, would have made a lousy government minister.

We should be thankful to the emperor because Tocqueville’s forced retreat into the library gave him the opportunity to write his second masterpiece.

To that extent, Tocqueville’s “Recollections” raise significant questions about the role of intellectuals in modern politics. It’s not that Tocqueville concluded intellectuals were irrelevant. On the contrary, he resolved that clear thought and careful inquiry unclouded by either sentimentalism or the demands and temptations of office were, if anything, even more essential. Hence the air of relief with which Tocqueville decided that, by virtue of Louis-Napoléon’s assumption of absolute power, Tocqueville had no place in the political life of Napoleon III’s Second Empire.

In a way, we should be thankful to the emperor because Tocqueville’s forced retreat into the library gave him the opportunity to write his second masterpiece, “The Old Regime and the Revolution.” One purpose of that book was to try and discern the deeper reasons France seemed perpetually unable to combine liberty with political stability. There the emphasis on individual actors that features so strongly in the “Recollections” fades to the point of invisibility.

This points to an ongoing and unresolved tension in Tocqueville’s thought: the relative importance he assigns to general trends, as opposed to individuals, in shaping historical events. In the “Recollections,” individuals and their free choices clearly matter. But they seem unable to master the volatility that followed the February Revolution and equally incapable of averting the drift toward absolutism.

One explanation for this might be found in Tocqueville’s conclusion, underscored by Goldhammer, that character and instinct trump intellect and experience in politics, especially in revolutionary times. That and similar insights are why Tocqueville’s “Recollections” remain so worthy of renewed attention by intellectuals and political actors today.