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PREFACE. - Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution 
The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856).
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Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty-six, by
Harper & Brothers,
in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the Southern District of New York.
The book I now publish is not a history of the Revolution. That history has been too brilliantly written for me to think of writing it afresh. This is a mere essay on the Revolution.
The French made, in 1789, the greatest effort that has ever been made by any people to sever their history into two parts, so to speak, and to tear open a gulf between their past and their future. In this design, they took the greatest care to leave every trace of their past condition behind them; they imposed all kinds of restraints upon themselves in order to be different from their ancestry; they omitted nothing which could disguise them.
I have always fancied that they were less successful in this enterprise than has been generally believed abroad, or even supposed at home. I have always suspected that they unconsciously retained most of the sentiments, habits, and ideas which the old regime had taught them, and by whose aid they achieved the Revolution; and that, without intending it, they used its ruins as materials for the construction of their new society. Hence it seemed that the proper way of studying the Revolution was to forget, for a time, the France we see before us, and to examine, in its grave, the France that is gone. That is the task which I have here endeavored to perform; it has been more arduous than I had imagined.
The early ages of the monarchy, the Middle Ages, and the period of revival have been thoroughly studied; the labors of the authors who have chosen them for their theme have acquainted us not only with the events of history, but also with the laws, the customs, the spirit of the government and of the nation in those days. No one has yet thought of examining the eighteenth century in the same close, careful manner. We fancy that we are familiar with the French society of that age because we see clearly what glittered on its surface, and possess detailed biographies of the illustrious characters, and ingenious or eloquent criticisms on the works of the great writers who flourished at the time. But of the manner in which public business was transacted, of the real working of institutions, of the true relative position of the various classes of society, of the condition and feelings of those classes which were neither heard nor seen, of the actual opinions and customs of the day, we have only confused and frequently erroneous notions.
I have undertaken to grope into the heart of this old regime. It is not far distant from us in years, but the Revolution hides it.
To succeed in the task, I have not only read the celebrated books which the eighteenth century produced; I have studied many works which are comparatively unknown, and deservedly so, but which, as their composition betrays but little art, afford perhaps a still truer index to the instincts of the age. I have endeavored to make myself acquainted with all the public documents in which the French expressed their opinions and their views at the approach of the Revolution. I have derived much information on this head from the reports of the States, and, at a later period, from those of the Provincial Assemblies. I have freely used the cahiers which were presented by the three orders in 1789. These cahiers, whose originals form a large series of folio volumes, will ever remain as the testament of the old French society, the final expression of its wishes, the authentic statement of its last will. They are a historical document that is unique.
Nor have I confined my studies to these. In countries where the supreme power is predominant, very few ideas, or desires, or grievances can exist without coming before it in some shape or other. But few interests can be created or passions aroused that are not at some time laid bare before it. Its archives reveal not merely its own proceedings, but the movement of the whole nation. Free access to the files of the Department of the Interior and the various prefectures would soon enable a foreigner to know more about France than we do ourselves. In the eighteenth century, as a perusal of this work will show, the government was already highly centralized, very powerful, prodigiously active. It was constantly at work aiding, prohibiting, permitting this or that. It had much to promise, much to give. It exercised paramount influence not only over the transaction of business, but over the prospects of families and the private life of individuals. None of its business was made public; hence people did not shrink from confiding to it their most secret infirmities. I have devoted much time to the study of its remains at Paris and in the provinces.*
I have found in them, as I anticipated, the actual life of the old regime, its ideas, its passions, its prejudices, its practices. I have found men speaking freely their inmost thoughts in their own language. I have thus obtained much information upon the old regime which was unknown even to the men who lived under it, for I had access to sources which were closed to them.
As I progressed in my labors, I was surprised to find in the France of that day many features which are conspicuous in the France we have before us. I met with a host of feelings and ideas which I have always credited to the Revolution, and many habits which it is supposed to have engendered; I found on every side the roots of our modern society deeply imbedded in the old soil. The nearer I drew to 1789, the more distinctly I noticed the spirit which brought about the Revolution. The actual physiognomy of the Revolution was gradually disclosed before me. Its temper, its genius were apparent; it was all there. I saw there not only the secret of its earliest efforts, but the promise also of its ultimate results—for the Revolution had two distinct phases: one during which the French seemed to want to destroy every remnant of the past, another during which they tried to regain a portion of what they had thrown off. Many of the laws and political usages of the old regime which disappeared in 1789 reappeared some years afterward, just as some rivers bury themselves in the earth and rise to the surface at a distance, washing new shores with the old waters.
The especial objects of the work I now present to the public are to explain why the Revolution, which was impending over every European country, burst forth in France rather than elsewhere; why it issued spontaneously from the society which it was to destroy; and how the old monarchy contrived to fall so completely and so suddenly.
My design is to pursue the work beyond these limits. I intend, if I have time and my strength does not fail me, to follow through the vicissitudes of their long revolution these Frenchmen with whom I have lived on such familiar terms under the old regime; to see them throwing off the shape they had borrowed from this old regime, and assuming new shapes to suit events, yet never changing their nature, or wholly disguising the old familiar features by changes of expression.
I shall first go over the period of 1789, when their affections were divided between the love of freedom and the love of equality; when they desired to establish free as well as democratic institutions, and to acknowledge and confirm rights as well as to destroy privileges. This was an era of youth, of enthusiasm, of pride, of generous and heartfelt passions; despite its errors, men will remember it long, and for many a day to come it will disturb the slumbers of those who seek to corrupt or to enslave the French.
In the course of a hasty sketch of the Revolution, I shall endeavor to show what errors, what faults, what disappointments led the French to abandon their first aim, to forget liberty, and to aspire to become the equal servants of the master of the world; how a far stronger and more absolute government than the one the Revolution overthrew then seized and monopolized all political power, suppressed all the liberties which had been so dearly bought, and set up in their stead empty shams; deprived electors of all means of obtaining information, of the right of assemblage, and of the faculty of exercising a choice, yet talked of popular sovereignty; said the taxes were freely voted, when mute or enslaved assemblies assented to their imposition; and, while stripping the nation of every vestige of self-government, of constitutional guarantees, and of liberty of thought, speech, and the press—that is to say, of the most precious and the noblest conquests of 1789—still dared to claim descent from that great era.
I shall stop at the period at which the work of the Revolution appears complete, and the new society created. I shall then examine that new society. I shall try to discover wherein it resembles and wherein it differs from the society which preceded it; to ascertain what we have gained and what we have lost by the universal earthquake; and shall lastly attempt to foresee our future prospects.
A portion of this second work I have roughly sketched but it is not yet fit for the public eye. Shall I be permitted to finish it? Who knows? The fate of individuals is even more obscure than that of nations.
I trust I have written this work without prejudice; but I do not claim to have written dispassionately. It would be hardly decent for a Frenchman to be calm when he speaks of his country, and thinks of the times. I admit that, in studying every feature of the society of other times, I have never lost sight of that which we see before us. I have tried not only to detect the disease of which the patient died, but to discover the remedy that might have saved him. I have acted like those physicians who try to surprise the vital principle in each paralyzed organ. My object has been to draw a perfectly accurate, and, at the same time, an instructive picture. Whenever I have found among our ancestors any of those masculine virtues which we need so much and possess so little—a true spirit of independence, a taste for true greatness, faith in ourselves and in our cause—I have brought them boldly forward; and, in like manner, whenever I have discovered in the laws, or ideas, or manners of olden time, any trace of those vices which destroyed the old regime and weaken us to-day, I have taken pains to throw light on them, so that the sight of their mischievous effects in the past might prove a warning for the future.
In pursuing this object, I have not, I confess, allowed myself to be influenced by fears of wounding either individuals or classes, or shocking opinions or recollections, however respectable they may be. I have often felt regret in pursuing this course, but remorse, never. Those whom I may have offended must forgive me, in consideration of the honesty and disinterestedness of my aim.
I may perhaps be charged with evincing in this work a most inopportune love for freedom, about which I am assured that Frenchmen have ceased to care.
I can only reply to those who urge this charge that in me the feeling is of ancient date. More than twenty years have elapsed since I wrote, in reference to another society, almost these very words.
In the darkness of the future three truths may be plainly discerned. The first is, that all the men of our day are driven, sometimes slowly, sometimes violently, by an unknown force—which may possibly be regulated or moderated, but can not be overcome—toward the destruction of aristocracies. The second is, that, among all human societies, those in which there exists and can exist no aristocracy are precisely those in which it will be most difficult to resist, for any length of time, the establishment of despotism. And the third is, that despotisms can never be so injurious as in societies of this nature; for despotism is the form of government which is best adapted to facilitate the development of the vices to which these societies are prone, and naturally encourages the very propensities that are indigenous in their disposition.
When men are no longer bound together by caste, class, corporate or family ties, they are only too prone to give their whole thoughts to their private interest, and to wrap themselves up in a narrow individuality in which public virtue is stifled. Despotism does not combat this tendency; on the contrary, it renders it irresistible, for it deprives citizens of all common passions, mutual necessities, need of a common understanding, opportunity for combined action: it ripens them, so to speak, in private life. They had a tendency to hold themselves aloof from each other: it isolates them. They looked coldly on each other: it freezes their souls.
In societies of this stamp, in which there are no fixed landmarks, every man is constantly spurred on by a desire to rise and a fear of falling. And as money, which is the chief mark by which men are classified and divided one from the other, fluctuates incessantly, passes from hand to hand, alters the rank of individuals, raises families here, lowers them there, every one is forced to make constant and desperate efforts to acquire or retain it. Hence the ruling passions become a desire for wealth at all cost, a taste for business, a love of gain, and a liking for comfort and material pleasures. These passions pervade all classes, not excepting those which have hitherto been strangers to them. If they are not checked they will soon enervate and degrade them all. Now, it is essential to despotism to encourage and foster them. Debilitating passions are its natural allies; they serve to divert attention from public affairs, and render the very name of revolution terrible. Despotism alone can supply the secrecy and darkness which cupidity requires to be at ease, and which embolden men to brave dishonor for the sake of fraudulent gain. These passions would have been strong in the absence of despotism: with its aid they are paramount.
On the other hand, liberty alone can combat the vices which are natural to this class of societies, and arrest their downward progress. Nothing but liberty can draw men forth from the isolation into which their independence naturally drives them—can compel them to associate together, in order to come to a common understanding, to debate, and to compromise together on their joint concerns. Liberty alone can free them from money-worship, and divert them from their petty, every-day business cares, to teach them and make them feel that there is a country above and beside them. It alone awakens more energetic and higher passions than the love of ease, provides ambition with nobler aims than the acquisition of wealth, and yields the light which reveals, in clear outline, the virtues and the vices of mankind.
Democratic societies which are not free may be rich, refined, ornate, even magnificent, and powerful in proportion to the weight of their homogeneous mass; they may develop private virtues, produce good family-men, honest merchants, respectable landowners, and even good Christians—for their country is not of this world, and it is the glory of their religion that it produces them in the most corrupt societies and under the worst governments—the Roman empire during its decline was full of such as these; but there are things which such societies as those I speak of can never produce, and these are great citizens, and, above all, a great people. I will go farther; I do not hesitate to affirm that the common level of hearts and minds will never cease to sink so long as equality and despotism are combined.
This is what I thought and wrote twenty years ago. I acknowledge that nothing has since happened that could lead me to think or write otherwise. As I made known my good opinion of liberty when it was in favor, I can not be blamed for adhering to that opinion now that it is in disgrace.
I must, moreover, beg to assure my opponents that I do not differ from them as widely as they perhaps imagine. Where is the man whose soul is naturally so base that he would rather be subject to the caprices of one of his fellow-men than obey laws which he had helped to make himself, if he thought his nation sufficiently virtuous to make a good use of liberty? I do not think such a man exists. Despots acknowledge that liberty is an excellent thing; but they want it all for themselves, and maintain that the rest of the world is unworthy of it. Thus there is no difference of opinion in reference to liberty; we differ only in our appreciation of men; and thus it may be strictly said that one’s love for despotism is in exact proportion to one’s contempt for one’s country. I must beg to be allowed to wait a little longer before I embrace that sentiment.
I may say, I think, without undue self-laudation, that this book is the fruit of great labor. I could point to more than one short chapter that has cost me over a year’s work. I could have loaded my pages with foot-notes, but I have preferred inserting a few only, and placing them at the end of the volume, with a reference to the pages to which they apply. They contain examples and proofs of the facts stated in the text. I could furnish many more if this book induced any one to take the trouble of asking for them.
[*]I have made especial use of the archives of some of the greater intendants’ offices, such as those of Tours, which are very complete; they refer to a very large district (généralite), placed in the centre of France, and containing a million of souls. My thanks are due to the young and able keeper of the archives, M. Grandmaison. Other intendants’ offices, such as that of Ile de France, have satisfied me that business was conducted on the same plan throughout most of the kingdom.