Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: OF OFFICIAL MANNERS AND CUSTOMS UNDER THE OLD REGIME. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER VI.: OF OFFICIAL MANNERS AND CUSTOMS UNDER THE OLD REGIME. - 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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OF OFFICIAL MANNERS AND CUSTOMS UNDER THE OLD REGIME.
IT is impossible to read the correspondence of intendants of the old regime with their superiors without being struck with the resemblance between the officials of that day and those of our own. Like institutions produced like men; across the Revolutionary gulf which divides them they appear hand in hand. As much may be said of the people governed. Never was the power of legislation to shape men’s minds more powerfully illustrated.
Already in those days ministers were seized with a mania for seeing with their own eyes the details of every thing, and managing every thing at Paris. The mania increased with time and practice. Toward the close of the eighteenth century, a work-house could not be established in any corner of a distant province but the comptroller must insist on overseeing its expenditure, providing it with rules, choosing its site. If a poor-house were founded, the same minister required to know the names of all paupers relieved, their exits and their entrances. Before the middle of the century, in 1733, M. D’Argenson wrote, “Ministers are overloaded with business details. Every thing is done by them and through them, and if their information be not coextensive with their power, they are forced to let their clerks act as they please, and become the real masters of the country.”
Comptrollers-general were not content with business reports; they insisted on minute information about individuals. Intendants expected the same from their sub-delegates, and rarely failed to repeat, word for word, in their reports, what these subordinates stated in theirs, as though they were stating matters within their own knowledge.
A very extensive machinery was requisite before the government could know every thing and manage every thing at Paris. The amount of documents filed was enormous, and the slowness with which public business was transacted such that I have been unable to discover any case in which a village obtained permission to raise its church steeple or repair its presbytery in less than a year. Generally speaking, two or three years elapsed before such petitions were granted.
The Council itself confessed, in a decree of 29th March, 1773, that “administrative forms cause infinite delays, and frequently give rise to very just complaints; yet these forms are all necessary.”
I was under the impression that a taste for statistics was peculiar to the government officials of our own day: this I find to be an error. Toward the close of the old regime, printed forms were constantly sent to the intendant, who sent them on to his sub-delegates, who sent them on to the syndics, who filled the blanks. The subjects on which the comptroller thus sought information were the character of lands and of their cultivation, the kind and quantity of produce raised, the number of cattle, and the customs of the people. Information thus obtained was fully as minute and as reliable as that which sub-prefects and mayors furnish in our own day. Sub-delegates seem, from these tabular reports, to have formed in general an unfavorable judgment upon the character of the people. They reiterate the opinion that “the peasant is naturally idle, and would not work if he could live without it.” That economical doctrine appears to be very generally received among these government officials.
Nor is the official style of the two periods less strikingly similar. Official writers then, as now, affected a colorless, smooth, vague, diffuse style; each writer merged his identity in the general mediocrity of the body to which he belonged. Read a prefect, you have read an intendant.
When, toward the close of the century, the peculiarities of Diderot and Rousseau spread into the language of the day, the affected sensibility of these writers was adopted by the officials and even by state financiers. Official style, usually dry enough, then became unctuous and even tender. A sub-delegate complained to the intendant of Paris that his “feelings were so sensitive that he could not discharge the duties of his office without moments of poignant grief.”
The government distributed, as it still does, certain sums in charity in each parish, on condition that the parishioners raised something on their side for the same purpose. When the sum raised by them was sufficient, the comptroller made a memorandum on the margin of the scheme of distribution, “Good—express satisfaction;” but when it was considerable, he wrote, “Good—express satisfaction and sensibility.”
Government officials, none of whom were of noble descent, already formed a class apart, with feelings, traditions, virtues, and notions of honor and dignity all their own. They constituted the aristocracy of the new society, ready to take their rank as soon as the Revolution had cleared the way.
A marked characteristic of the French government, even in those days, was the hatred it bore to every one, whether noble or not, who presumed to meddle with public affairs without its knowledge. It took fright at the organization of the least public body which ventured to exist without permission. It was disturbed by the formation of any free society. It could brook no association but such as it had arbitrarily formed, and over which it presided. Even manufacturing companies displeased it. In a word, it objected to people looking after their own concerns, and preferred general inertia to rivalry. Still, as the French could not exist without some sort of liberty, they were permitted to discuss as freely as they chose all sorts of general and abstract theories on religion, philosophy, morals, and even politics. Provided its agents were not meddled with, the government had no objection to attacks on the fundamental principles of society, and even on the existence of a God. Officials fancied these were no concerns of theirs.
Though the newspapers of those days, or, as they were usually called, the gazettes, contained more poetry than politics, they were none the less viewed with a jealous eye by the government. Careless about books, it was very strict with regard to journals, and being unable to suppress them, it undertook to make them a government monopoly. A circular, dated 1761, which I have seen, announced to all the intendants in the kingdom that the Gazette de France would be thereafter composed under the eye of the king (Louis XV.), “his majesty desiring to render it interesting and superior to all others. You will, therefore,” continues the circular, “have the goodness to let me have a report of all events of interest within your province, especially such as bear upon natural philosophy and natural history, together with other singular and striking occurrences.” To the circular was attached a prospectus of the Gazette, informing the public that, though it appeared oftener and contained more matter than its rival, its subscription price would be considerably less.
Armed with these documents, an intendant applied to his sub-delegates for information, but the latter replied that they had none to give. Then came a second letter from the minister, complaining bitterly of the dearth of news from the province in question, and winding up with, “His majesty commands me to say to you that it is his will that you give your serious attention to this affair, and issue the strictest orders to your subordinates.” Under the pressure, the sub-delegates did their best. One reported that a salt-smuggler had been hanged, and had displayed great courage; another, that a woman in his neighborhood had been delivered of three girls at one birth; a third, that a terrible storm had taken place, but, happily, had done no mischief. A fourth declared that he had not been able, notwithstanding great exertions, to discover any news of interest, but that he took pleasure in subscribing personally to so useful a gazette, and would recommend all his neighbors to do the like. Still, these remarkable efforts seem to have produced inadequate results, for it appears from a fresh letter that “the king, who has graciously deigned to give his attention to the best means of perfecting the Gazette, and wishes to secure for this journal the superiority and fame which it deserves, has expressed much dissatisfaction at the manner in which his desires have been seconded.”
History, it is easily perceived, is a picture-gallery containing a host of copies and very few originals.
It must be admitted, however, that the central government of France never followed the example of those southern governments which seem to have sought to be despotic only in order to blight their realms. The former was always active, and often intelligently so. Its activity was often fruitless and even mischievous, however, because it essayed to achieve feats beyond its reach, and even impossibilities.
It seldom undertook, or soon abandoned projects of useful reform which demanded perseverance and energy, but it was incessantly engaged in altering the laws. Repose was never known in its domain. New rules followed each other with such bewildering rapidity that its agents never knew which to obey of the multifarious commands they received. Municipal officers complained to the comptroller-general of the extreme instability of the minor laws. “The financial regulations alone,” say they, “vary so constantly that it would require the whole time of a municipal officer, holding office for life, to acquire a knowledge of the new regulations as they appear from time to time.”
When the substance of the laws was allowed to remain the same, their execution was varied. Those who have not studied the actual working of the old regime in the official records it left behind can form no idea of the contempt into which the laws fall, even in the minds of their administrators, when there are no political meetings or newspapers to check the capricious activity and set bounds to the arbitrary tendencies of government officials.
Very few Orders in Council omitted to repeal former and frequently quite recent enactments, which, though quite regular, had never been carried into effect. No edict, or royal declaration, or registered letters patent was strictly carried out in practice. The correspondence of the comptrollers-general and the intendants shows plainly that the government was constantly in the habit of tolerating exceptions to its rules. It rarely broke the law, but it daily bent it to either side, to suit particular cases or facilitate the transaction of business.
An intendant wrote to the minister, in reference to an application of a state contractor to be relieved from paying town dues, “It is certain that, according to the strict letter of the laws I have cited, no one can claim exemption from these dues, but all who are acquainted with business are aware that these sweeping provisions, like the penalties they impose, though contained in most of the edicts, declarations, and decrees establishing taxes, were not intended to be literally construed, or to exclude exceptional cases.”
These words contain the whole principle of the old regime. Strict rules, loosely enforced—such was its characteristic.
To attempt to form an opinion of the age from its laws would lead to the most ridiculous errors. A royal declaration of 1757 condemned to death all writers or printers of works assailing religion or government. Booksellers in whose shops they were found, peddlers who hawked them, were liable to the same penalties. Was this the age of Saint Dominic? No, it was exactly the period of Voltaire’s reign.
Complaints are heard that Frenchmen show contempt for law. Alas! when could they have learned to respect it? It may be broadly said that, among the men of the old regime, the place in the mind which should have been occupied by the idea of law was vacant. Petitioners begged that established rules might be departed from in their case as seriously and as earnestly as if they had been insisting on the honest execution of the law; nor were they ever referred to the law unless government intended to give them a rebuff. Custom, rather than volition, still inculcated submission to authority on the part of the people; but whenever they did break loose, the least excitement gave rise to violent acts, which were themselves met, not by the law, but by violence on the other side, and arbitrary stretches of power.
Though the central power had not acquired in the eighteenth century the strong and healthy constitution it has since possessed, it had, notwithstanding, so thoroughly destroyed all intermediate authorities, and left so wide a vacant space between itself and the public, that it already appeared to be the mainspring of the social machine, the sole source of national life.
Nothing proves this more thoroughly than the writings of its assailants. During the period of uneasiness which preceded the Revolution, a host of schemes for new forms of society and government were brought to light. These schemes sought various ends, but the means by which they were to be reached were invariably identical. All the schemers wanted to use the central power for the destruction of the existing system, and the substitution of their new plan in its stead: that power alone seemed to them capable of accomplishing so great a task. They all assumed that the rights and powers of the state ought to be unlimited, and that the only thing needed was to persuade it to use them aright. Mirabeau the father, whose aristocratic prejudices led him to denominate the intendants intruders, and to declare that if the government had the sole right of appointing magistrates, the courts of justice would soon be mere “bands of commissioners,” relied on the central power alone for the realization of his chimerical plans.
Nor were these notions confined to books; they pervaded men’s minds, gave a color to society and social habits, and were conspicuous in every transaction of every-day life.
Nobody expected to succeed in any enterprise unless the state helped him. Farmers, who, as a class, are generally stubborn and indocile, were led to believe that the backwardness of agriculture was due to the lack of advice and aid from the government. A letter from one of them, somewhat revolutionary in tone, inquired of the intendant “why the government did not appoint inspectors to travel once a year through the provinces, and examine the state of agriculture throughout the kingdom? Such officers would teach farmers what to plant, what to do with their cattle, how to fatten, raise, and sell them, and where to send them to market. They would, of course, be paid officials. Some honorary distinction should be conferred on successful agriculturists.”
Inspectors and honorary distinctions! These are the last encouragements a Suffolk farmer would have thought of expecting.
The masses were quite satisfied that the government alone could preserve the public peace. The mounted police alone commanded the respect of the rich, and inspired terror among the people. Both viewed that force rather as the incarnation of public order than as one of its chief instruments. The provincial assembly of Guienne observed that “every one has noticed how quickly the sight of a mounted policeman will subdue the most riotous mob.” And every body wanted, accordingly, to have a troop of them at his door.a Petitions to that effect overloaded the registers of the intendants: no one seemed to suspect that the protector might be a master in disguise.
Nothing astonished the exiles who fled to England so much as the absence of any such force there. Some express surprise, others contempt at the phenomenon. A man of some merit, but who had not been taught to expect such a contrast, exclaimed, “It is positively true that an Englishman congratulates himself on being robbed, with the reflection that, at all events, there are no mounted police in his country. An Englishman is sorry to see riots, but when rioters escape scot free into the bosom of society, he consoles himself with the remark that the law must be observed to the letter, at whatever cost. These false notions, however, are not universally adopted. There are wise men who think differently, and their view must ultimately prevail.”
He never dreamed that these eccentricities of the English might possibly have some connection with their liberties. He accounted for them on scientific principles. “In countries where a damp climate and a want of elasticity in the air gives a gloomy cast to the character of the people, serious subjects are sure to be popular. Hence it is that the English are naturally inclined to busy themselves about their government, while the French are not.”
Government having assumed the place of Providence, people naturally invoked its aid for their private wants. Heaps of petitions were received from persons who wanted their petty private ends served, always for the public good.b The chests which contained them were, perhaps, the only spot where all classes of society under the old regime freely intermingled. Sad reading, this: farmers begging to be reimbursed the value of lost cattle or horses; men in easy circumstances begging a loan to enable them to work their land to more advantage; manufacturers begging for monopolies to crush out competition; business men confiding their pecuniary embarrassments to the intendant, and begging for assistance or a loan. It would appear that the public funds were liable to be used in this way.
Men of rank were not unfrequent applicants for favors. They might be recognized by the lofty tone in which they begged. They came to solicit from the intendant delays in which to pay their share of the land-tax, which was their chief burden; or they asked that it be remitted altogether. I have read a great number of petitions of this kind from noblemen, some of very high degree; the ground alleged is usually the inadequacy of the petitioner’s income, or his pecuniary straits. Men of rank always addressed intendants simply “Sir;” on these occasions they addressed him “Monseigneur,” as every body else did.
Pride and poverty are often amusingly combined in these petitions. One reads as follows: “Your warm heart can never surely insist on the payment of a strict twentieth by a man of my rank, as you might with men of the common sort.”
In times of scarcity, which recurred frequently during the eighteenth century, the people of each province flew to the intendant, and seemed to expect food from him as a matter of course.c The act was redeemed by wholesale denunciations of the government. All the sufferings of the people were laid to its charge; it was loudly blamed for the severity of the weather.
Let no one again express surprise at the wonderful ease with which centralization was re-established in France at the beginning of this century. It had been overthrown by the men of 1789; but its foundations were deep in the minds of its very destroyers, and upon these it was rebuilt anew stronger than ever.
[Note a, page 92.]The Provincial Assembly of Guienne cries aloud for new brigades of horse-police, just as in our day the council-general of the department of Aveyron or Lot no doubt demands new brigades of gendarmerie. Always the same idea—gendarmerie constitute order, and order can not be had with the gendarme except through government. The report adds: “Complaint is daily made that there is no police in the country.” (How could there be? Noblemen take no concern for any thing, burghers live in town; and the community is represented by a rude peasant, and has no power at all.) “It must be admitted that, except in some cantons in which benevolent and just seigniors use their influence over their vassals to prevent those appeals to violence to which the country people are prone, in consequence of the rudeness of their manners and the roughness of their character, there exists hardly any where any means of controlling these ignorant, rough, and hot-headed men.”
[Note b, page 93.]Tobacco licenses were as eagerly sought after under the old regime as at present. The most distinguished people begged them for their dependents. Some, I find, were granted at the request of noble ladies, some to please archbishops.
[Note c, page 94.]Local life was more thoroughly extinguished than almost seems credible. One of the roads leading from Maine into Normandy had become impassable. Who calls for its repair? The district of Touraine, which it crosses? The province of Normandy, or that of Maine, both vitally interested in the cattle-trade of which it is the outlet? Some canton particularly injured by the bad condition of the road? Neither district, nor province, nor canton utter a word. The duty of attracting the attention of government to the road is left to the traders who use it, and whose wagons stick in the mud. They write to Paris to the comptroller-general, and beg him to come to their rescue.