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First published in 1856, Tocqueville's examination of the French Revolution is perhaps a most important contribution to our understaning of this keystone of modern history.
CONTRADICTORY OPINIONS FORMED UPON THE REVOLUTION WHEN IT BROKE OUT.
PHILOSOPHER and statesmen may learn a valuable lesson of modesty from the history of our Revolution, for there never were events greater, better prepared, longer matured, and yet so little foreseen.
With all his genius, Frederick the Great had no perception of what was at hand. He touched the Revolution, so to speak, but he did not see it. More than this, while he seemed to be acting according to his own impulse, he was, in fact, its forerunner and agent. Yet he did not recognize its approach ; and when at length it appeared full in view, the new and extraordinary characteristics which distinguished it from the common run of revolutions escaped his notice.
Abroad, it excited universal curiosity. It gave birth to a vague notion that a new era was at hand. Nations entertained indistinct hopes of changes and reforms, but no one suspected what they were to be. Princes and ministers did not even feel the confused presentiment which it stirred in the minds of their subjects. They viewed it simply as one of those chronic diseases to which every national constitution is subject, and whose only effect is to pave the way for political enterprises on the part of neighbors. When they spoke truly about it, it was unconsciously. When the principal sovereigns of Germany proclaimed at Pilnitz, in 1791, that all the powers of Europe were menaced by the danger which threatened royalty in France, they said what was true, but at bottom they were far from thinking so. Secret dispatches of the time prove that these expressions were only intended as clever pretexts to mask their real purposes, and disguise them from the public eye. They knew perfectly well—or thought they knew—that the French Revolution was a mere local and ephemeral accident, which might be turned to account. In this faith they formed plans, made preparations, contracted secret alliances ; quarreled among themselves about the booty they saw before them; were reconciled, and again divided; were ready, in short, for every thing except that which was going to happen.
Englishmen, enlightened by the experience of their own history, and trained by a long enjoyment of political liberty, saw, through a thick mist, the steady advances of a great revolution; but they could not discern its form, or foresee the influence it was destined to exercise over the world and over their own interests. Arthur Young, who traveled through France just before the outbreak of the Revolution, was so far from suspecting its real consequences that he rather feared it might increase the power of the privileged classes. "As for the nobility and the clergy," says he, "if this revolution enhances their preponderance, I fear it will do more harm than good."
Burke's mind was illumined by the hatred he bore to the Revolution from the first ; still he doubted for a time. His first inference was, that France would be weakened, if not annihilated. "France is at this time," he said, "in a political light, to be considered as expunged out of the system of Europe. Whether she can ever appear in it again as a leading power is not easy to determine; but at present I consider France as not politically existing, and most assuredly it would take up much time to restore her to her former active existence. Gallos quoque in bellis floruisse audivimus— 'We have heard that the Gauls too were once noted in war,' may be the remark of the present generation, as it was of an ancient one."
Men judged as loosely on the spot. On the eve of the outbreak, no one in France knew what would be the result. Among all the contemporaneous cahiers, I have only found two which seem to mark any apprehension of the people. Fears are expressed that royalty, or the court, as it was still called, will retain undue preponderance. The States-General are said to be too feeble, too short-lived. Alarm is felt lest they should suffer violence. The nobility is very uneasy on this head. Several cahiers affirm that "the Swiss troops will swear never to attack the citizens, even in case of affray or revolt." If the States-General are free, all the abuses may be corrected; the necessary reform is extensive, but easy.
Meanwhile the Revolution pursued its course. It was not till the strange and terrible physiognomy of the monster's head was visible ; till it destroyed civil as well as political institutions, manners, customs, laws, and even the mother tongue ; till, having dashed in pieces the machine of government, it shook the foundations of society, and seemed anxious to assail even God himself; till it overflowed the frontier, and, by dint of methods unknown before, by new systems of tactics, by murderous maxims, and "armed opinions" (to use the language of Pitt), overthrew the landmarks of empires, broke crowns, and crushed subjects, while, strange to say, it won them over to its side : it was not till then that a change came over men's minds. Then sovereigns and statesmen began to see that what they had taken for a mere every-day accident in history was an event so new, so contrary to all former experience, so widespread, so monstrous and incomprehensible, that the human mind was lost in endeavoring to examine it. Some supposed that this unknown power, whose strength nothing could enhance and nothing diminish, which could not be checked, and which could not check itself, was destined to lead human society to complete and final dissolution. M. de Maistre, in 1797, observed that "the French Revolution has a satanic character." On the other hand, others discerned the hand of God in the Revolution, and inferred a gracious design of Providence to people France and the world with a new and better species. Several writers of that day seem to have been exercised by a sort of religious terror, such as Salvian felt at the sight of the barbarians. Burke, pursuing his idea, exclaims, " Deprived of the old government, deprived in a manner of all government, France, fallen as a monarchy to common speculators, appears more likely to be an object of pity or insult, according to the disposition of the circumjacent powers, than to be the scourge and terror of them all; but out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, un-appalled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all common maxims and all common means, that hideous phantom has overpowered those who could not believe it was possible she could at all exist except on the principles which habit rather than nature has persuaded them are necessary to their own particular welfare and to their own ordinary modes of action."
Now, was the Revolution, in reality, as extraordinary as it seemed to its contemporaries? Was it as unexampled, as deeply subversive as they supposed? What was the real meaning, what the true character of this strange and terrible revolution ? What did it actually destroy ? What did it create ?
It appears that the proper time has come to put these questions and to answer them. This is the most opportune moment for an inquiry and a judgment upon the vast topic they embrace. Time has cleared from our eyes the film of passion which blinded those who took part in the movement, and time has not yet impaired our capacity to appreciate the spirit which animated them. A short while hence the task will have become arduous, for successful revolutions obliterate their causes, and thus, by their own act, become inexplicable.CHAPTER 2
THAT THE FUNDAMENTAL AND FINAL OBJECT OF THE REVOLUTION WAS NOT, AS SOME HAVE SUPPOSED, TO DESTROY RELIGIOUS AND TO WEAKEN POLITICAL AUTHORITY.
ONE of the first measures of the French Revolution was an attack upon the Church. Of all the passions to which that Revolution gave birth, that of irreligion was the first kindled, as it was the last extinguished. Even when the first enthusiasm of liberty had worn off, and peace had been purchased by the sacrifice of freedom, hostility to religion survived. Napoleon subdued the liberal spirit of the Revolution, but he could not conquer its anti-Christian tendencies. Even in the times in which we live, men have fancied they were redeeming their servility to the most slender officials of the state by their insolence to God, and have renounced all that was free, noble, and exalted in the doctrines of the Revolution, in the belief that they were still faithful to its spirit so long as they were infidels.
Yet nothing is easier than to satisfy one's self that the anti-religious war was a mere incident of the great Revolution; a striking, but fleeting expression of its physiognomy ; a temporary result of ideas, and passions, and accidents which preceded it—any thing but its own proper fruit.
It is generally understood—and justly so—that the philosophy of the eighteenth century was one of the chief causes of the Revolution; and it is not to be denied that that philosophy was deeply irreligious ; but it was twofold, and the two divisions are widely distinct.
One division or system contained all the new or revived opinions with reference to the conditions of society, and the principles of civil and political law. Such were, for example, the doctrines of the natural equality of man, and the consequent abolition of all caste, class, or professional privileges, popular sovereignty, the paramount authority of the social body, the uniformity of rules..... These doctrines are not only the causes of the French Revolution; they are, so to speak, its substance; they constitute the most fundamental, the most durable, the truest portion of its work.
The other system was widely different. Its leaders attacked the Church with absolute fury. They assailed its clergy, its hierarchy, its institutions, its doctrines ; to overthrow these, they tried to tear up Christianity by the roots. But this portion of the philosophy of the eighteenth century derived its origin from objects which the Revolution destroyed: it naturally disappeared with its cause, and was, so to speak, buried in its triumph. I purpose returning to this great topic herafter, and will add but one word here in order to explain myself more fully. Christianity was hated by these philosophers less as a religious doctrine than as a political institution ; not because the priests assumed to regulate the concerns of the other world, but because they were landlords, seignior, tithe-holders, administrators in this ; not because the Church could not find a place in the new society which was being established, but because she then occupied the place of honor, privilege, and might in the society which was to be overthrown.
See how time has confirmed this view, and is still confirming it under our own eyes! Simultaneously with the consolidation of the political work of the Revolution, its religious work has been undone. The more thoroughly the political institutions it assailed have been destroyed ; the more completely the powers, influences, and classes which were peculiarly obnoxious to it have been conquered, and have ceased in their ruin to be objects of hatred ; in fine, the more the clergy have held themselves aloof from the institutions which formerly fell by their side, the higher has the power of the Church risen, and the deeper has it taken root in men's minds.
This phenomenon is not peculiar to France ; every Christian Church in Europe has gained ground since the French Revolution.
Nothing can be more erroneous than to suppose that democracy is naturally hostile to religion. Neither Christianity nor even Catholicism involves any contradiction to the democratic principle; both are, in some respects, decidedly favorable to it. All experience, indeed, shows that the religious instinct has invariably taken deepest root in the popular heart. All the religions which have disappeared found a last refuge there. Strange, indeed, it would be if the tendency of institutions based on the predominance of the popular will and popular passions were necessarily and absolutely to impel the human mind toward impiety.
All that I have said of religious I may repeat with additional emphasis in regard to political authority.
When the Revolution overthrew simultaneously all the institutions and all the usages which had governed society and restrained mankind within bounds, it was, perhaps, only natural to suppose that its result would be the destruction, not of one particular frame of society, but of all social order; not of this or that government, but of all public authority. There was a degree of plausibility in assuming that it aimed essentially at anarchy; yet I will venture to say that this also was an illusion.
Less than a year after the Revolution had begun, Mirabeau wrote secretly to the king, "Compare the present state of things with the old regime, and console yourself and take hope. A part—the greater part of the acts of the national assembly are decidedly favorable to a monarchical government. Is it nothing to have got rid of Parliament, separate states, the clerical body, the privileged classes, and the nobility ? Richelieu would have liked the idea of forming but one class of citizens; so level a surface assists the exercise of power. A series of absolute reigns would have done less for royal authority than this one year of Revolution." He understood the Revolution like a man who was competent to lead it.
The French Revolution did not aim merely at a change in an old government; it designed to abolish the old form of society. It was bound to assail all forms of established authority together; to destroy acknowledged influences ; to efface traditions ; to substitute new manners and usages for the old ones; in a word, to sweep out of men's minds all the notions which had hitherto commanded respect and obedience. Hence its singular anarchical aspect.
But a close inspection brings to light from under the ruins an immense central power, which has gathered together and grasped all the several particles of authority and influence formerly scattered among a host of secondary powers, orders, classes, professions, families, and individuals, sown broadcast, so to speak, over the whole social body. No such power had been seen in the world since the fall of the Roman empire. This new power was created by the Revolution, or, rather, it grew spontaneously out of the ruins the Revolution made. If the governments it created were fragile, they were still far stronger than any that had preceded them, and their very fragility, as will be shown hereafter, sprang from the same cause as their strength.
It was the simple, regular, grand form of this central power which Mirabeau discerned through the dust of the crumbling institutions of olden time. The masses did not see it, great as it was. Time gradually disclosed it to all; and now, princes can see nothing else. Admiration and envy of its work fill the mind, not only of the sovereigns it created, but of those who were strangers or inimical to its progress. All are busy destroying immunities, abolishing privileges throughout their dominions; mingling ranks, leveling, substituting hired officials in the room of an aristocracy, a uniform set of laws in the place of local franchises, a single strong government instead of a system of diversified authorities. Their industry in this revolutionary work is unceasing; when they meet an obstacle, they will sometimes even borrow a hint or a maxim from the Revolution. They have been noticed inciting the poor against the rich, the commoner against the noble, the peasant against his lord. The French Revolution was both their scourge and their tutor.
Excerpted from The Old Regime and the French Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville, John Bonner. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted August 17, 2009
This book is a must read for anyone interested in European history. The chapters are throughly reasearched and artfully described. His explanations of the causes leading to the revolution of 1789 show the effect of decisions, but read as fresh for the political climates of the world today as if a contemporary treatment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 21, 2011
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