Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V.: WHAT DID THE FRENCH REVOLUTION REALLY ACHIEVE? - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER V.: WHAT DID THE FRENCH REVOLUTION REALLY ACHIEVE? - 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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WHAT DID THE FRENCH REVOLUTION REALLY ACHIEVE?
THE object of the preceding inquiries was to clear the way for the solution of the question I originally put: What was the real object of the Revolution? what was its peculiar character? why was it brought about? what did it achieve?
It is an error to suppose, as some have done, that the object of the Revolution was to overthrow the sovereignty of religious creeds. Despite appearances, it was essentially a social and political revolution. It did not tend to perpetuate or consolidate disorder, to “methodize anarchy” (as one of its leading opponents remarked), but rather to augment the power and the rights of public authority. It was not calculated to change the character of our civilization, as others imagined, or to arrest its progress, or even to alter, essentially, any of the fundamental laws upon which our Western societies rest. When it is disengaged from the extraneous incidents which imparted a temporary coloring to its complexion, and is examined on its own proper merits, it will be seen that its sole effect was to abolish those institutions which had held undivided sway over Europe for several centuries, and which are usually known as the feudal system; in order to substitute therefor a social and political organization marked by more uniformity and more simplicity, and resting on the basis of the equality of all ranks.
That alone required a stupendous revolution; for these old institutions were not only connected and interwoven with all the religious and political laws of Europe, but had, besides, created a host of ideas, and feelings, and habits, and customs, which had grown up around them. To destroy and cut out of the social body a part which clung to so many organs involved a frightful operation. This made the Revolution appear even greater than it was. It appeared the universal destroyer; for what it did destroy was linked, and, in some degree, incorporated with almost every thing else.
Radical as it was, the Revolution introduced fewer innovations than has been generally supposed, as I shall have occasion to show hereafter. What it really achieved was the destruction—total, or partial, for the work is still in progress—of every thing which proceeded from the old aristocratical and feudal institutions, and of every thing which clung to them or bore in any way their distinguishing mark. It respected no legacy of the past but such as had been foreign to these institutions, and could exist without them.
It was, least of all, a casual accident. True, it took the world by surprise; yet it was the mere natural result of very long labors, the sudden and violent termination of a task which had successively engaged ten generations of men. Had it never taken place, the old social edifice would none the less have fallen, though it would have given way piecemeal instead of breaking down with a crash. The Revolution effected suddenly, by a convulsive and sudden effort, without transition, precautions, or pity, what would have been gradually effected by time had it never occurred. That was its achievement.
It is surprising that this fact, which we discern so plainly to-day, should have once been hidden from the eyes of the shrewdest observers. Burke appeals to the French: “Had you but made it to be understood that, in the delusion of your amiable error, you had gone farther than your wise ancestors; that you were resolved to assume your ancient privileges while you preserved the spirit of your ancient and your recent loyalty and honor; or, if diffident of yourselves, and not clearly discerning the almost obliterated constitution of your ancestors, you had but looked to your neighbors in this land, who had kept alive the ancient principles and the models of the old common law of Europe . . . . ”
Burke can not see that the real object of the Revolution is to abolish that very common law in Europe; he does not perceive that that, and nothing else, is the gist of the movement.
But, as society was every where prepared for this Revolution, why did it break out in France rather than abroad? Why did it present features here which were either wholly dropped or only partially reproduced in other countries? This secondary inquiry is worth resolving: it will form the subject of the following Book.