Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: CONTRADICTORY OPINIONS FORMED UPON THE REVOLUTION WHEN IT BROKE OUT. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER I.: CONTRADICTORY OPINIONS FORMED UPON THE REVOLUTION WHEN IT BROKE OUT. - 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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CONTRADICTORY OPINIONS FORMED UPON THE REVOLUTION WHEN IT BROKE OUT.
PHILOSOPHERS 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, unappalled 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.