Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX.: THAT THESE MEN, WHO WERE SO ALIKE, WERE MORE DIVIDED THAN THEY HAD EVER BEEN INTO PETTY GROUPS, EACH INDEPENDENT OF AND INDIFFERENT TO THE OTHERS. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER IX.: THAT THESE MEN, WHO WERE SO ALIKE, WERE MORE DIVIDED THAN THEY HAD EVER BEEN INTO PETTY GROUPS, EACH INDEPENDENT OF AND INDIFFERENT TO THE OTHERS. - 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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THAT THESE MEN, WHO WERE SO ALIKE, WERE MORE DIVIDED THAN THEY HAD EVER BEEN INTO PETTY GROUPS, EACH INDEPENDENT OF AND INDIFFERENT TO THE OTHERS.
LET us now glance at the reverse of the picture, and see how these same Frenchmen, who had so many features in common, were, notwithstanding, split into more isolated groups than any other people or their own ancestry.
There is reason to believe that, at the time the feudal system was established in Europe, the class since known as the nobility did not form a caste, but was composed originally of the chief men of the nation, thus forming a real aristocracy. That is a question which I do not purpose to discuss in this place. I merely observe that in the Middle Ages the nobility had become a caste; that is to say, its distinguishing mark was birth.
It resembled an aristocracy inasmuch as it was the governing body; but birth alone decided who should stand at the head of that body. All who were not of noble birth were excluded from its ranks, and filled a station in the state which might vary in dignity, but was always subordinate.
Wherever the feudal system took root in Europe, it led to the establishment of castes; in England alone it gave birth to an aristocracy.
I have always been surprised that a fact so strikingly peculiar to England, and which is the only true key to the peculiarities of her laws, her spirit, and her history, should have obtained so little notice among philosophers and statesmen. Custom seems to have blinded the English to its importance. It has often been half noticed and half described, but never, I think, fully and clearly realized. Montesquieu, who visited Great Britain in 1739, certainly did write, “I am in a country which does not resemble the west of Europe;” but he went no farther.
The contrast between England and the rest of Europe arose, indeed, less from her Parliament, her liberty, her freedom of the press, and her jury system, than from another and more important peculiarity. England was the only country where castes had been not altered, but thoroughly abolished: noblemen and people engaged in the same avocations, entered the same professions, and, what is more significant, intermarried with each other. The daughter of the greatest nobleman in the land might marry, without dishonor, a man of no hereditary rank.
If you want to ascertain whether castes, and the ideas, habits, and barriers to which they give rise, are really abolished in any nation, look at the marriages which take place there. There you will find the decisive test. Sixty years of democracy have not wholly effaced privileges of caste in France; old families, mixed and confounded with new ones in every thing else, still scorn connection with them by marriage.
It has often been said that the English nobility were more prudent, more skillful, more open than the nobility of any other country. The truth is, that there had not been, for a long period of time, any nobility at all in England, in the old circumscribed meaning of the word.
The revolution which destroyed it is lost in the night of time, but the English tongue is a surviving witness of the change. Many centuries since, the meaning of the word “gentleman” changed in England, and the word “roturier” ceased to exist. When Molière wrote Tartuffe in 1664, it would have been impossible to give a literal English version of the line,
“Et tel que l’on le voit, il est bon gentilhomme.”
Language can be made to throw farther light on the science of history. Follow, for instance, the meanings of the word gentleman throughout its career. Our word “gentilhomme” was its father. As distinctions of classes became less marked in England, its signification widened. Century after century, it was applied to lower and lower classes in the social scale. The English at last bore it with them to America, where it was indiscriminately applied to all classes. Its history is, in fact, that of democracy.
In France, the word “gentilhomme” never acquired more latitude than it possessed at first. Since the Revolution it has become disused, but not modified. The word which described members of the caste was preserved unaltered, because the caste itself was retained as widely distinct as ever from other classes of society.
I will go farther. I maintain that the caste had grown more distinct and exclusive than ever; that the movement of French society had been exactly opposite to that which took place in England.
While the citizen and the noble had grown more like each other, the distance between them had increased; their mutual resemblance had rather alienated than united them.
During the Middle Ages, when the feudal system was in full vigor, the holders of seigniorial lands (who were technically styled vassals), whether nobles or not, were constantly associated with the seignior in the government of the seigniory. That was, in fact, the principal condition of their tenure. They were bound by their titles not only to follow their seignior in arms, but to assist him, for a given time each year, in rendering justice in his court, and administering the government of the seigniory. Seigniorial courts were the mainspring of feudal government; they figure in all the old laws of Europe, and I have found marked traces of them in many parts of Germany even in our own time. A learned feudist, Edme de Fréminville, who thought proper, thirty years before the Revolution, to write a voluminous work on feudal rights and the renewal of court rolls, informs us that he has seen “many seigniorial titles by which the vassals bound themselves to attend, every fortnight, at the seignior’s court, there to sit, jointly with him or his judge in ordinary, in judgment upon disputes and lawsuits between the people of the seigniory.” He adds, that he has “found as many as eighty, a hundred and fifty, and even two hundred vassals, a great proportion of whom were roturiers, pledged to this service in a seigniory.” This I quote, not as a proof of the custom—such evidence abounds—but as an instance of the early and long-continued association of the peasantry with men of rank. They were constantly engaged together in the transaction of the same business. What the seigniorial courts did for small rural landholders, the Provincial States, and, at a later period, the States-General, effected for the middle class in cities.
It is impossible to read the extant records of the States-General and Provincial States of the fourteenth century without being amazed at the weight and power exercised by the Third Estate in these assemblies.
As individuals, the burghers of the fourteenth century were, no doubt, very inferior to those of the eighteenth; collectively, they occupied a higher and more solidly established rank. Their right to take part in the government was uncontroverted; their share in political assemblies was always large, often paramount. The other classes were daily reminded of the necessity of making terms with them.
It is quite striking to notice how easily the nobility and the Third Estate then combined for purposes of action or defense—no easy matter to contrive at a later day. Many of the States-General of the fourteenth century derived an irregular and revolutionary character from the disasters of the time; but the Provincial States of the same period, on which there is no reason to suppose any abnormal influence was operating, contain singular evidence of this harmony. In Auvergne the Three Estates combined to carry out most important measures, and appointed commissioners, chosen equally from each, to superintend their execution. Champagne witnessed a similar spectacle at the same time. Nor is it necessary to do more than hint at the famous league between the nobles and citizens of several cities, by which the leaguers bound themselves, at the beginning of the same century, to defend their national franchises and provincial privileges against the encroachments of the royal power.ef Our history, at that age, is full of similar episodes, which seem to have been borrowed from the history of England. They disappear entirely in later times.
With the disorganization of the seigniorial governments, the increasing infrequency or total cessation of meetings of the States-General, and the ruin of national and local liberties together, the middle classes ceased to associate in public life with men of rank. There was no longer any necessity for their meeting and coming to a mutual understanding. They became daily more independent of each other, and more complete strangers. By the eighteenth century the change was accomplished; the two classes only met accidentally in private life. They were not only rivals, but enemies.
A feature which appears peculiar to France was the seeming aggrandizement of individual noblemen at the cost of the order. While the nobility, as an order, was losing its political power, men of rank were acquiring new privileges and augmenting their old ones. The former had lost its corporate authority, but still the new master chose his chief servants more exclusively than ever from among its members. It was easier for a commoner (roturier) to become an officer under Louis XIV. than Louis XVI. Commoners often obtained office in Prussia at a time when the fact was unexampled in France. All the new privileges were hereditary and inseparable from blood. The more the nobility ceased to be an aristocracy the more it became a caste.
Let us take the most odious of these privileges, the exemption from taxes: it is easily seen that from the fifteenth century to the French Revolution it was constantly on the increase. It became more valuable as the taxes swelled. When the taille was but 1,200,000 livres under Charles VII., the privilege of not being bound to contribute was not worth much; but it was considerable when the tax yielded 80,000,000, under Louis XVI. When the taille was the only tax from which the nobility were exempt, their privileges might pass unnoticed; but when similar taxes had been created in a thousand different shapes and with a thousand different names, when four other imposts had been placed on the same footing as the taille, and new impositions, such as royal corvées on all public works, military duty, &c., had been laid on every class save the nobles only, their privileges appeared immense.g True, the inequality, great as it was, seemed still greater, for the nobleman’s farmer had often to pay the very taxes which his master flattered himself he escaped; but, in these matters, the semblance of injustice is more mischievous than the reality.
Louis XIV., when laboring under the financial difficulties which at last overwhelmed him, toward the close of his reign, created two taxes, a capitation-tax and a land-tax of a twentieth, which were to be paid by all his subjects indiscriminately. But, as though the privilege of the nobility was so intrinsically respectable that it deserved consideration even in cases where it did not apply, care was taken to preserve a distinction in the manner of levying it.hik It was exacted of the people harshly and with marks of degradation; the nobles were respectfully and gently requested to pay.l
The taxes had been unequal all over Europe, but the inequality was more plainly seen and severely felt in France than abroad. The bulk of the taxes in Germany were indirect, and the exemption from direct taxes, enjoyed by the nobility, was only partial—they paid less than other people. They were taxed specially, too, in lieu of the military service they had once been bound to render.
Now, of all the methods that have been devised for the division of nations into classes, unequal taxes are the most pernicious and effective. They tend to isolate each class irremediably; for when the tax is unequal, the line is drawn afresh every year between the taxables and the exempts; the distinction is never allowed to fade. Every member of the privileged class feels a pressing and immediate interest in keeping it up, and maintaining his isolation from the taxable community.
All, or nearly all public measures begin or end with a tax. Hence, when two classes of citizens do not feel the taxes alike, they cease to have common interests and feelings in common; they do not require to meet for consultation; they have no opportunity and no desire to act in concert.
Burke draws a flattering picture of the old constitution of France, and makes a point in favor of the institution of nobility, that commoners might obtain rank by procuring office; he evidently infers an analogy between this feature of our institutions and the open aristocracy of England. Nor can it be denied that Louis XI. bestowed titles freely in order to reduce the power of the nobility, and that his successors did the same thing to get money. Necker states that in his time as many as four thousand offices carried with them noble rank. No similar feature existed elsewhere in Europe. Yet the analogy which Burke seeks to establish between France and England was none the less false.
The real secret of the stanch attachment of the middle classes of England to their aristocracy did not lie in the fact that it was an open body; it flowed rather from the undefined extent and unknown limits of that body. Englishmen bore with their aristocracy less because they could obtain admission within its pale, than because they never knew when they were within, and could always consider themselves part and parcel of it, could share its authority, and derive éclat or profit from its power.
In France, on the contrary, the barrier which separated the nobility from the other classes, though easily surmounted, was always conspicuous, and known by outward and odious marks. The parvenu who overstepped it was separated from his former associates by privileges which were onerous and humiliating for them.
The plan of raising commoners to the nobility, therefore, far from weakening their hatred of the superior class, increased it beyond measure. New nobles were viewed by their old equals with most bitter envy. Hence it was that the Third Estate evinced far more dislike of the new than of the old nobility, and demanded constantly that the entrance to the ranks of the nobility should be, not enlarged, but narrowed.
At no time in our history was it so easy to become a noble as in 1789, and at no time had the nobility and the commonalty been so distinct and separate. Not only did the nobles exclude from their electoral colleges every one who was the least tainted with plebeian blood, but the commoners exhibited equal anxiety to keep out of their ranks all who looked like men of rank. In certain provinces, new nobles were rejected by one party because they were not deemed noble enough, by the others because they were too noble. This happened, it is said, to the celebrated Lavoisier.
The burghers presented a very similar spectacle. They were as widely distinct from the people as the nobles from them.
Nearly the whole middle class under the old regime lived in the cities. Two causes had produced this result: the privileges of men of rank and the taille. Seigniors residing on their estates could afford to be good-natured and patronizing to the peasantry, but they were insolent to a degree to their neighbors of a higher rank. And the more political power they lost, the more proud and overbearing they became. Nor could it be otherwise; for when they were stripped of their authority, they no longer needed to conciliate partners in the business of government, while, on the other hand, they tried to console themselves for the sacrifice of substantial authority by an immoderate abuse of its outward semblance. Their absence from their estates was rather an increased inconvenience than a relief to their neighbors; absenteeism had not even that advantage, and privileges exercised by attorney were only the more intolerable.
I question, however, whether the taille and the other taxes which had been placed on the same footing were not still more effective causes than these.
It would be easy to explain, and that in a few words, why the taille was a more oppressive tax in the country than in the cities; but the reader may not consider such an explanation requisite. It will suffice, therefore, to say that the middle classes domiciled in cities were enabled, in many various ways, to evade the tax, wholly or partially, which they could not have done had they been living on their property in the country. Above all, a city residence saved them from the risk of being chosen to levy the taille. This they dreaded more than the tax itself, and very justly, for there was not, in the whole range of society under the old regime, or even in any society, I believe, a position worse than that of parochial collector of the taille. I shall have occasion to demonstrate this hereafter. Yet, with the single exception of men of rank, no resident of a village could escape the office. Rather than submit to the burden, rich commoners leased their estates and went to live in the nearest city. Turgot is consistent with the secret documents which I have had occasion to consult when he declares that “the collection of the taille converts the landholding commoners of the country into city burghers.” This, it may be observed by the way, was one of the reasons why France was more plentifully sprinkled with towns, and especially small towns, than any other country of Europe.
Inclosed within city walls, the rich commoner lost his rural tastes and feelings. He ceased to take an interest in the toils and concerns of the class he had deserted. His life had henceforth but one object: he aspired to become a public functionary in his adopted city.
It is a grave error to suppose that the rage for office-seeking, which stamps the French of our day, the middle classes especially, sprung up since the Revolution: it dates from a much more ancient period, though constant encouragement has steadily developed and intensified it.
The offices of the old regime were not always like ours, but I think they were more numerous; there was no end to the small ones. Between 1693 and 1709 alone, it has been calculated that forty thousand were created, all within reach of the most slender commoner. I have myself counted, in a provincial town of no great size, in the year 1750, the names of one hundred and nine persons engaged in administering justice, and a hundred and twenty-six more busied in executing their orders. The middle classes really coveted government places with unexampled ardor. The moment a man acquired a little capital, instead of investing it in trade, he bought an office directly. Not even the close companies or the taille have proved as injurious to the commercial and agricultural interests of France as this mania for places. When no offices were vacant, the place-hunters set their imagination to work and soon invented new ones. I find a published memorial of a Sieur Lemberville, in which he proves that inspectors of this or that branch of industry are absolutely needed, and winds up by offering himself for the future office. Who has not known a Lemberville? A man possessed of some education and means did not think it decorous to die without having been a public functionary. “Each in his way,” said a contemporary, “wants to be something by his majesty’s favor.”
The only substantial difference between the custom of those days and our own resides in the price paid for office. Then they were sold by government, now they are bestowed; it is no longer necessary to pay money; the object can be attained by selling one’s soul.
Interest, to a still greater extent than locality or habits of life, drew a line between the middle classes and the peasantry. Complaint is made about the privileges of the nobles, and very justly; but what must be said of those of the middle classes? Thousands of offices carried with them exemptions from this or that impost. One exempted its holder from serving in the militia, another from performing corvées, a third from paying the taille. “Where is the parish,” said a writer of the time, “that does not contain, besides nobles and clergy, a number of inhabitants who have procured some exemption from taxes by obtaining office under government?” The number was so great, in fact, as to produce at times a sensible falling off in the product of the taille; and, now and then, this inconvenience led to the abolition of several useless offices. I have no doubt that exemptions were as frequent among the middle classes as among the nobility, and even more so.
These wretched privileges excited the envy of those who did not enjoy them, and filled their possessors with selfish pride. Nothing more common, during the whole of the eighteenth century, than hostility and jealousy between cities and the surrounding country. Turgot declares that “the towns are monopolized by selfishness, and are always ready to sacrifice the village and country parts in their district.” On another occasion, he reminds his sub-delegates how “often” they have been “obliged to repress the tendency of cities to usurp the rights and encroach upon the privileges of the villages and country parts in their district.”
The middle classes contrived to make strangers and enemies of the lower classes in the cities also. Most of the local taxes were devised so as to fall mainly upon the latter. Turgot remarks somewhere that the middle classes usually contrived to escape the payment of town dues; and this I have found to be correct.
But the most striking characteristic of the middle classes was their fear of being confounded with the people, and their violent desire to escape in some way from popular control.
“If it be the king’s pleasure,” said the burghers of a city in a memorial to the comptroller-general, “that the office of mayor become elective, it would be fitting that the choice of the electors should be restricted to the principal notables, and even to the presidial.”
We have had occasion to notice how steadily the kings pursued the policy of stripping the cities of their political rights. This is the leading feature of their tactics from Louis XI. to Louis XV. The burghers often aided in the accomplishment of these schemes, and sometimes suggested them.
At the time of the municipal reform of 1764, an intendant consulted the municipal officers of a small town on the subject of retaining an elective magistracy, chosen partly by the lower classes. They replied that, to tell the truth, “the people had never abused the franchise, and it would no doubt be agreeable to confirm them in the right of choosing their masters; still it was better, for the sake of order and the public tranquillity, that the matter should be left to the decision of the notables.” The sub-delegate of the same town reported that he had invited to a secret conference “the six leading citizens of the place,” who were unanimously of opinion that the best thing to do was to have the magistrates elected, not by the assembly of notables, as the municipal officers proposed, but by a small committee selected from the various bodies which composed the assembly. The sub-delegate, who was more favorable to popular freedom than these citizens, reported their opinion, but added that “it was hard for mechanics to be deprived of control over moneys exacted from them in virtue of taxes imposed by those among their fellow-citizens who, by reason of the exemption from taxes they enjoyed, were often disinterested in the matter.”
To complete the picture, let us glance at the middle classes independently of their relations to the people, as we examined the nobility independently of its bearing on the middle classes.
The first striking feature in this small part of the nation is infinite subdivision. The French people really seem to resemble those pretended elementary substances which science is unceasingly resolving into new elements the closer it examines them. I have studied a small town in which I found the names of thirty-six different bodies of citizens. These various bodies, small as they were, were constantly hard at work reducing their size; they were ever throwing off some foreign particle or other, and trying to reduce their condition to that of simple elements. This operation had cut down some of them to not more than three or four members. They were none the less quarrelsome and consequential on that account. Peculiar privileges, among which the least decorous were still marks of honor, distinguished each class from the others, and endless was the struggle for precedence among them. Intendant and courts were stunned with the clamor of their quarrels. “It has just been decided that the holy water must be given to the presidial before the city corporation. The Parliament hesitated, but the king evoked the case, and decided it in Council. It was high time; the whole city was in a ferment on the subject.” If one body is granted precedence over another at the assembly of notables, the injured corporation withdraws; it will abandon its public duties rather than see, as it says, its dignity insulted. The corporation of barbers in the city of La Flêche decided “to express in this manner the natural grief which it felt at the precedence awarded to the bakers.” A portion of the notables of a city refused to perform their functions, “because,” said the intendant, “some mechanics had obtained admission to the assembly, and with these the leading citizens could not humble themselves by associating.” Another intendant observed, “If the rank of alderman be given to a notary, that will disgust the other notables, for the notaries are men of low birth, not sons of notables, and have been clerks in their youth.” The six leading citizens, whom I have mentioned above, who were so ready to strip the people of their political rights, were greatly perplexed when called upon to designate who should be notables, and what should be the order of precedence among them. On this point they expressed their views rather by doubts and hints than straightforward suggestions: “They were afraid,” they said, “of hurting the feelings of their fellow-citizens.”
The friction between these small bodies sharpened the peculiar vanity of the French, but extinguished the proper pride of the citizen. Most of these corporations existed in the sixteenth century, but then, after having transacted the business of their exclusive association, they mingled with the other citizens for the transaction of the general concerns of the city. In the eighteenth century no such intermixture took place, for symptoms of municipal life had become rare, and city business was managed by hired agents. Each of these small societies lived for itself alone, thought of nothing but its own affairs, had no interest in any concerns but those which were exclusively its own.
Our ancestors had no such word as “individuality,” which we have coined for our use. They did not need it, because in their time there were no individuals wholly isolated and unconnected with some group or other; but each of the small groups of which French society was composed was intensely selfish, whence arose a sort of collective individuality, so to speak, which prepared men’s minds for the true individuality of the present day.
The strangest feature of the old society was the similarity which existed among all these individuals thus grouped in different sets; they were so alike that when they changed their surroundings it was impossible to recognize them; moreover, in their hearts they regarded the petty barriers which split them into rival cliques as equally contrary to public interest and common sense. In theory they were all for unity. Each held to his set because others did the like; but they were all ready to fuse together into one mass, provided no one obtained peculiar advantages, or rose above the common level.
[Note e, page 111.]discussion of public affairs antagonistic to the establishment of castes.
[Note f, page 111.]Provincial liberties may survive national liberty for a time, when they are of old standing, and interwoven with manners, customs, and recollections, and the despotism is new. But it is unreasonable to suppose that local liberties can be created at will, or maintained for any length of time, when general liberty is extinct.
[Note g, page 112.]Turgot gives a statement of the extent of the privileges of the nobility, in the matter of taxation, in a memorial to the king. It appears to me to be quite correct.
[Note h, page 113.]indirect privilege in respect of taxes.—difference in the manner of collection when the tax is levied on all alike.
[Note i, page 112.]another example of inequality in the collection of a uniform tax.
[Note k, page 112.]same subject.
[Note 1, page 112.]how the government admitted that, even in the case of taxes weighing alike on all classes, the tax ought to be collected differently from the privileged and privileged classes.