Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XV.: HOW THE FRENCH SOUGHT REFORMS BEFORE LIBERTIES. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER XV.: HOW THE FRENCH SOUGHT REFORMS BEFORE LIBERTIES. - 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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HOW THE FRENCH SOUGHT REFORMS BEFORE LIBERTIES.
IT is noteworthy that of all the ideas and feelings which prepared the Revolution, the idea of political liberty, properly so called, was the last to make its appearance, as the desire for it was the first to vanish.
The old edifice of government had long been insecure; it shook, though no man struck it. Voltaire was hardly thinking of it. Three years’ residence in England had enabled him to understand that country without falling in love with it. He was delighted with the skeptical philosophy that was freely taught among the English, but he was not struck with their political laws, which he rather criticised than praised. His letters on England, which are one of his master-pieces, hardly contain any allusion to Parliament: he envies the English their literary liberty, but cares little for their political liberty, as though the one could exist for any length of time without the other.
About the middle of the century, a class of writers devoted their attention to administrative questions; they had many points in common, and were hence distinguished by the general name of economists or physiocrats. They are less conspicuous in history than the philosophers; they exercised a less direct influence in causing the Revolution, but still I think its true nature can best be studied in their writings. The philosophers confined themselves, for the most part, to abstract and general theories on the subject of government; the economists dealt in theories, but also deigned to notice facts. The former furnished ideal, the latter practical schemes of reform. They assailed alternately all the institutions which the Revolution abolished; not one of them found favor in their eyes. All those, on the other hand, which are credited especially to the Revolution, were announced beforehand and warmly lauded by them: it is not easy to mention one whose substantial features are not to be found in some of their writings.
Their books, moreover, breathe that democratic and revolutionary spirit with which we are so familiar. They hate, not certain specific privileges, but all distinctions of classes; they would insist upon equality of rights in the midst of slavery. Obstacles they regard as only fit to be trampled on. They respect neither contracts nor private rights; indeed, they hardly recognize individual rights at all in their absorbing devotion to the public good. Yet they were quiet, peaceable men, of respectable character, honest magistrates, able administrators; they were carried away by the peculiar spirit of their task.
Their contempt for the past was unbounded. “The nation,” said Letronne, “is governed on wrong principles; every thing seems to have been left to chance.” Starting from this idea, they set to work to demand the demolition of every institution, however old and time-honored, which seemed to mar the symmetry of their plans. Forty years before the Constituent Assembly divided France into departments, one of the economists suggested the alteration of all existing territorial divisions and of the names of all the provinces.
They conceived all the social and administrative reforms effected by the Revolution before the idea of free institutions had once flashed upon their mind. They were in favor of the removal of all restrictions upon the sale and conveyance of produce and merchandise. But of political liberty they took no thought; and when it first occurred to them they rejected the idea. Most of them were strongly opposed to deliberative assemblies, to local and subordinate authorities, and to the various checks which have been established from time to time in free countries to counterbalance the supreme government. “The system of counterpoises,” said Quesnay, “is a fatal feature in governments.” A friend of his was satisfied that “the system of counterpoises was the fruit of chimerical speculations.”
The only safeguard against despotism which they proposed was public education; for, as Quesnay said, “Despotism is impossible in an enlightened nation.” “Mankind,” says one of his disciples, “have invented a host of fruitless contrivances to obviate the evils arising from abuses of power by governments, but they have generally neglected the only one that could really be of service, namely, a general permanent system of public education in the essence of justice and natural order.” Such was the literary nonsense they wanted to substitute in the place of political guarantees.
Letronne bitterly deplores the government’s neglect of the rural districts, and describes them as having no roads, no industry, no intellectual progress; but he never seems to have imagined that they would have been better regulated if their affairs had been intrusted to the people themselves.
Even Turgot, with all his peculiar breadth of view and rare genius, was but little fonder than they of political liberty. He had no taste for it till late in life, when public opinion pointed in that direction. Like the economists, he conceived that the best of all political guarantees was public education afforded by the state; but he desired it to be conducted in a particular spirit, and according to a particular plan. His confidence in this intellectual course of medicine—or, as a contemporary styled it, this “educational mechanism on fixed principles”—was unbounded. “I will venture to answer,” said he to the king, in a memorial on the subject, “that in ten years the nation will be so thoroughly altered that you shall not recognize it; and that, in point of enlightenment, morality, loyalty, and patriotism, it will surpass every other nation in the world. Children now ten years old will then be men, trained in ideas of love for their country, submissive to authority from conviction, not from fear, charitable to their fellow-countrymen, habituated to obey and to respect the voice of justice.”
It was so long since political liberty had flourished in France that its conditions and effects had been well-nigh forgotten. More than this, its shapeless relics, and the institutions which seemed to have been framed to take its place, rather aroused prejudice against it. Most of the surviving state assemblies exhibited the spirit as well as the forms of the Middle Ages, and hindered instead of assisting social progress. The Parliaments, which were the only substitutes for political bodies, could not arrest the mischief done by government, and often impeded it when it desired to do good.
The economists did not think it possible to use these old institutions as instruments for the accomplishment of the Revolution, nor did they approve the idea of intrusting the business to the nation as sovereign; they doubted the feasibility of effecting so elaborate and intricate a reform by the aid of a popular movement. Their designs, they thought, could be best and most easily accomplished by the crown itself.
The royal power had not taken its rise in the Middle Ages, and bore no mediæval stamp. They discovered in it good as well as bad points. It shared their proclivity for leveling all ranks, and making all laws uniform. It detested as heartily as they did the old institutions which had grown out of the feudal system, or which favored oligarchy. It was the best organized, the greatest and strongest government machine in Europe. Its existence seemed to them a very fortunate accident; they would have called it providential had it been the fashion then as now to allude to Providence on all possible occasions. Letronne observes that “France is much more happily situated than England; for here reforms that will change the whole state of the country can be accomplished in a moment, whereas in England similar measures are always exposed to be defeated by party strife.”
Their idea, then, was not to destroy, but to convert the absolute monarchy. “The state must govern according to the laws of natural order (règles de l’ordre essentiel),” says Mercier de la Rivière; “on these conditions it should be absolute.” “Let the state,” said another, “understand its duty thoroughly; this secured, it should be untrammeled.” All of them, from Quesnay to Abbé Bodeau, were of the same mind.
They were not satisfied with using the royal power to effect social reforms; they partly borrowed from it the idea of the future government they proposed to establish. The one was to be, in some measure, a copy of the other.
The state, said the economists, must not only govern, it must shape the nation. It must form the mind of citizens conformably to a preconceived model. It is its duty to fill their minds with such opinions and their hearts with such feelings as it may judge necessary. In fact, there are no limits either to its rights or its powers. It must transform as well as reform its subjects; perhaps even create new subjects, if it thinks fit. “The state,” says Bodeau, “moulds men into whatever shape it pleases.” That sentence expresses the gist of the whole system.
The immense social power conceived by the economists differed from the power they had before them in point of origin and character as well as magnitude. It was not of divine origin; it owed nothing to tradition; it was impersonal: it was called the state, not the king; it was not the heirloom of a family, it was the collective product and representative of the whole nation. Individual rights gave way to it as the sum of the rights of all.
They were quite familiar with the form of tyranny which we call democratic despotism, and which had not been conceived in the Middle Ages. No more social hierarchies, no distinctions of class or rank; a people consisting of individuals entirely equal, and as nearly alike as possible; this body acknowledged as the only legitimate sovereign, but carefully deprived of the means of directing or even superintending the government; over it a single agent, commissioned to perform all acts without consulting his principals: to control him, a public sense of right and wrong, destitute of organs for its expression; to check him, revolutions, not laws; the agent being de jure a subordinate agent, in fact a master: such was the plan.
Finding nothing in their neighborhood conformable to this ideal of theirs, they went to the heart of Asia in search of a model. I do not exaggerate when I affirm that every one of them wrote in some place or other an emphatic eulogium on China. One is sure to find at least that in their books; and as China is very imperfectly known even in our day, their statements on its subject are generally pure nonsense. They wanted all the nations of the world to set up exact copies of that barbarous and imbecile government, which a handful of Europeans master whenever they please. China was for them what England, and afterward America, became for all Frenchmen. They were filled with emotion and delight at the contemplation of a government wielded by an absolute but unprejudiced sovereign, who honored the useful arts by plowing once a year with his own hands; of a nation whose only religion was philosophy, whose only aristocracy were men of letters, whose public offices were awarded to the victors at literary tournaments.
It is generally believed that the destructive theories known by the name of socialism are of modern origin. This is an error. These theories are coeval with the earliest economists. While some of them wanted to use the absolute power they desired to establish to change the forms of society, others proposed to employ it in ruining its fundamental basis.
Read the Code de la Nature by Morelly; you will find there, together with the economist doctrines regarding the omnipotence and the boundless rights of the state, several of those political theories which have terrified France of late years, and whose origin we fancy we have seen—community of property, rights of labor, absolute equality, universal uniformity, mechanical regularity of individual movements, tyrannical regulations on all subjects, and the total absorption of the individual in the body politic.
“Nothing,” says the first article of this code, “belongs wholly to any one. Property is detestable, and any one who attempts to re-establish it shall be imprisoned for life, as a dangerous madman and an enemy of humanity.” The second article declares that “every citizen shall be kept, and maintained, and supplied with work at the public expense. All produce shall be gathered into public garners, to be distributed to citizens for their subsistence. All cities shall be built on the same plan; all private residences shall be alike. All children shall be taken from their families at five years of age, and educated together on a uniform plan.” This book reads as if it had been written yesterday. It is a hundred years old: it appeared in 1755, simultaneously with the foundation of Quesnay’s school. So true it is that centralization and socialism are natives of the same soil: one is the wild herb, the other the garden-plant.
Of all the men of their age, the economists would seem the least out of place at the present day; their passion for equality is so violent, their love of liberty so variable, that they wear a false air of contemporaries of our own. When I read the speeches and writings of the men who made the Revolution, I feel that I am in the company of strangers; but when I glance at the writings of the economists, I begin to fancy that I have lived with them, and just heard them talk.
About 1750 the nation at large cared no more for political liberty than the economists themselves; when it fell into disuse, the taste for it, and even the idea of it, were soon lost. People sought reforms, not rights. Had the throne then been occupied by a monarch of the calibre and character of Frederick the Great, I have no doubt he would have accomplished many of the reforms which were brought about by the Revolution; and that not only without endangering his throne, but with a large gain of power. It is said that M. de Machault, one of the ablest ministers of Louis XV., conceived this idea, and communicated it to his master; but such enterprises are not executed at second-hand; a man capable of accomplishing them could not fail to conceive them himself.
Twenty years changed the face of things. France had a glimpse of political liberty, and liked it. Many indications prove this. The provinces began to desire once more to administer their own government. Men’s minds became imbued with the notion that the people at large were entitled to a share in their own government. Recollections of the old States-General were revived. National history contained but this single item which the people loved to recall. The economists were carried away by the current, and compelled to clog their absolute scheme with some free institutions.
When the Parliaments were destroyed in 1771, the public, which had suffered severely from their evils, was profoundly affected by their fall. It seemed as if the last barrier against the royal prerogative had been destroyed.
Voltaire was indignant at the symptom. He wrote to his friends, “Nearly all the kingdom is in a state of effervescence and consternation; the provinces ferment as violently as the capital. Yet the edict seems to me to be pregnant with useful reforms. To abolish all venal offices; to establish courts that will administer justice gratuitously; to prevent litigants from coming to Paris from all parts of the kingdom to ruin themselves; to burden the crown with the expense of the seigniorial courts—are not these great services rendered to the nation? Have not these Parliaments been barbarous and intolerant? Really I admire the ‘Welches’ for taking the side of these insolent and indocile burghers. For my part, I think the king is right; if one must serve, I hold it better to serve a well-bred lion, who is naturally stronger than I am, than two hundred rats of my own breed.” And he adds, by way of excuse, “Think how infinitely I ought to appreciate the kindness of the king in relieving seigniors of the cost of their courts.”
Voltaire had been absent from Paris for many years, and fancied that the public mind was just as he had known it. This was not the case. The French were not satisfied now with desiring to see their affairs well managed; they wanted to manage them themselves. It was already visible that the great revolution which was in preparation would be effected, not only with the consent of the people, but by their hands.
I think that from this moment the radical revolution, which was to ruin simultaneously the worst features of the old regime and its redeeming traits, became inevitable. A people so badly trained for action could not undertake reforms without destroying every thing. An absolute sovereign would have been a less dangerous reformer. And, for my part, when I remember that this revolution, which destroyed so many institutions, and ideas, and habits that were inimical to liberty, also destroyed others without which liberty can hardly exist, I am inclined to think that, had it been accomplished by a despot, it would have left us perhaps fitter to become a free nation than it did, though it was done in the name of and by the sovereign people.
The preceding remarks must be carefully borne in mind by all who desire to understand the history of our Revolution.
At the time the French conceived a desire for political liberty, they were imbued with a number of notions on the subject of government which were not only difficult to reconcile with liberty, but were almost hostile to it.
In their ideal society there was no aristocracy but that of public functionaries, no authority but the government, sole and all-powerful, director of the state, tutor of individuals. They did not wish to depart from this system in the search for liberty; they tried to conciliate the two.
They attempted to combine an unlimited executive with a preponderating legislative body—a bureaucracy to administer, a democracy to govern. Collectively, the nation was sovereign—individually, citizens were confined in the closest dependence; yet from the former were expected the virtues and the experience of a free people, from the latter the qualities of a submissive servant.
It is to this desire of adjusting political liberty to institutions or ideas which are either foreign or hostile to it, but to which we were wedded by habit or attracted by taste, that we owe the many vain experiments of government that have been made during the last sixty years. Hence the fatal revolutions we have undergone. Hence it is that so many Frenchmen, worn out by fruitless efforts and sterile toil, have abandoned their second object and fallen back on their first, declaring that there is, after all, a certain pleasure in enjoying equality under a master. Hence we resemble the economists of 1750 more closely than our fathers of 1789.
I have often asked myself what was the source of that passion for political liberty which has inspired the greatest deeds of which mankind can boast. In what feelings does it take root? From whence does it derive nourishment?
I see clearly enough that when a people is badly governed it desires self-government; but this kind of love for independence grows out of certain particular temporary mischiefs wrought by despotism, and is never durable; it passes away with the accident which gave it birth. What seemed to be love for liberty turns out to be mere hatred of a despot. Nations born to freedom hate the intrinsic evil of dependence.
Nor do I believe that a true love for liberty can ever be inspired by the sight of the material advantages it procures, for they are not always clearly visible. It is very true that, in the long run, liberty always yields to those who know how to preserve it comfort, independence, and often wealth; but there are times when it disturbs these blessings for a while, and there are times when their immediate enjoyment can only be secured by a despotism. Those who only value liberty for their sake have never preserved it long.
It is the intrinsic attractions of freedom, its own peculiar charm—quite independently of its incidental benefits—which have seized so strong a hold on the great champions of liberty throughout history; they loved it because they loved the pleasure of being able to speak, to act, to breathe unrestrained, under the sole government of God and the laws. He who seeks freedom for any thing but freedom’s self is made to be a slave.
Some nations pursue liberty obstinately through all kinds of dangers and sufferings, not for its material benefits; they deem it so precious and essential a boon that nothing could console them for its loss, while its enjoyment would compensate them for all possible afflictions. Others, on the contrary, grow tired of it in the midst of prosperity; they allow it to be torn from them without resistance rather than compromise the comfort it has bestowed on them by making an effort. What do they need in order to remain free? A taste for freedom. Do not ask me to analyze that sublime taste; it can only be felt. It has a place in every great heart which God has prepared to receive it: it fills and inflames it. To try to explain it to those inferior minds who have never felt it is to waste time.