Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVIII.: OF CERTAIN PRACTICES BY MEANS OF WHICH THE GOVERNMENT COMPLETED THE REVOLUTIONARY EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER XVIII.: OF CERTAIN PRACTICES BY MEANS OF WHICH THE GOVERNMENT COMPLETED THE REVOLUTIONARY EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE. - 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 CERTAIN PRACTICES BY MEANS OF WHICH THE GOVERNMENT COMPLETED THE REVOLUTIONARY EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE.
THE government had long labored to plant and fasten in the popular mind several of those ideas which are now called revolutionary—principles of hostility to individual and private rights, and arguments in favor of appeals to violence.
The king set the example of treating the oldest and most solidly established institutions with contempt. Louis XV. shook the monarchy, and hastened the Revolution as much by his innovations as by his vices, by his energy as by his dissipation. When the people saw the Parliament—an institution coeval with, and apparently as strong as the monarchy—fall and disappear, they inferred, in a vague manner, that a period of violence was at hand, when age would prove no guarantee of respectability, and novelty no indication of risk.
During the whole course of his reign, Louis XVI. talked of nothing but reform. The Revolution overthrew very few institutions whose overthrow he did not foreshadow. He issued ordinances abolishing some of the worst, but he restored them soon afterward, as though he intended only to uproot them, leaving to others the task of pulling them down.
Some of the reforms which he effected changed violently and unexpectedly old and respected customs; others did violence to acquired rights. They paved the way for the Revolution less by striking down obstacles which stood in its way than by showing the people how it might be brought about. The mischief was aggravated by the pure and disinterested motives of the king and his advisers; for no example is so dangerous as that of violence employed by well-meaning people for beneficial objects.
Long before, Louis XIV. had publicly promulgated in his edicts the theory that all the lands in the kingdom had been in the origin conditionally granted by the state, which was therefore the only real landowner—the actual holders having mere possessory rights, and an imperfect and questionable title. This doctrine sprang out of the feudal system, but it was never openly professed in France till that system was on the point of death; courts of justice never admitted it. It was the mother of modern socialism, which thus, strange to say, seems to have been the offspring of royal despotism.w
During the subsequent reigns, the government took pains to teach the people, in practical lessons which they could easily understand, that private property was to be regarded with contempt. During the second half of the eighteenth century the government was seized with a mania for public works; it took possession without scruple of all the lands it required for its enterprises, and threw down the houses which stood in its way. The Department of Bridges and Roads was, then as now, smitten with admiration for the geometrical charm of the straight line. It would have nothing to do with roads in which there was the slightest curve; to avoid a bend, it would cut through a thousand estates. Properties thus injured or destroyed were always arbitrarily and tardily paid for; sometimes they were not paid for at all.x
When the Provincial Assembly of Lower Normandy took the administration of the province out of the hands of the intendant, it was ascertained that the price of all the lands taken by public authority during the twenty years previous was yet unpaid. The debt which the state thus owed to this little corner of France amounted to 250,000 livres. But few large landholders were injured; the burden fell chiefly on the smaller proprietors, for lands were very generally parceled out into small lots. Here were a large number of persons whose own experience taught them that private rights were not for a moment to be balanced against the public interest: a doctrine they were not likely to forget when the time came for its application to their own benefit.
In many parishes persons had bequeathed sums of money to be employed in supporting charitable institutions for the benefit of the parishioners in certain specific cases. Most of these institutions were either destroyed or transformed during the later period of the monarchy, by mere Orders in Council, that is to say, by the arbitrary will of government. The fund was usually taken away from the village, and bestowed on neighboring hospitals. Carrying out the principle still farther, the government simultaneously diverted the property of the hospitals from its original destination, and applied it to purposes of which the founder of the charity would doubtless have disapproved. Much of this property had been left to the hospitals, to be held by them inalienably: the government authorized them to sell it, and to pay over the price to the public treasury, which was to pay interest thereon. This, the administrators said, was making a better use of the bequest than the testator himself had done. They forgot that the very best way to teach men to violate the individual rights of the living is to disregard the wishes of the dead. No subsequent government has displayed such marked contempt for testamentary injunctions as the old monarchy. Never, on any occasion, did it evince any of those fastidious scruples which in England rally the whole weight of the social body to the support of the citizen’s last will, and secure for his memory a respect that is never paid to his person.
Requisitions, compulsory sales of produce, the maximum, were all in use under the government of the old regime. I find that in times of scarcity the public officials would fix the price at which farm produce must be sold, and punish farmers who refused to send their grain to market by the imposition of a fine.
But the most pernicious of all lessons was that inculcated by judicial proceedings in criminal cases in which the people were concerned. Poor men were far better protected against the rich and the powerful than is generally supposed. But when they had to deal with the state, they were judged, as I said before, by abnormal tribunals composed of partial judges: the proceedings were speedy and delusive; the decision, which was final, might be anticipated by preliminary execution. “His majesty appoints the provost of police (prévôt de la maréchaussée) and his lieutenant to take cognizance of all movements and assemblages to which the scarcity of provisions may give rise; ordains that cases shall be heard and decided by them summarily and without appeal; and forbids all courts of justice to take cognizance of any such.” This Order in Council was the law throughout the eighteenth century. Police reports of the time show that, in cases of this character, suspected villages were surrounded at night; houses were entered before daybreak; peasants designated for arrest were seized without other warrant or authority. They were often detained for a length of time in prison before they could speak to a judge, though edicts declared that every person accused should be examined within twenty-four hours after his arrest. That provision of the law was neither less formal nor more respected than it is in our own day.
It was thus that a benign and solidly-established government taught the people, day by day, the system of criminal procedure best adapted to the requirements of revolution and the desires of tyranny. It kept open school, and to the last gave to the lower classes this perilous education. Even Turgot faithfully copied his predecessors in this respect. When his legislation of 1775 on the subject of breadstuffs gave rise to resistance in the Parliament and riots in the country parts, he obtained from the king an ordinance which removed the cases of the rioters from the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts, and gave them exclusively to the cognizance of the provost. “The police jurisdiction,” the ordinance said, “is principally designed to repress popular disturbances when it is desirable that speedy examples be made.” Under this ordinance, peasants traveling out of their parish without a certificate signed by the curate and the syndic were liable to prosecution before the provost, arrest, and punishment as vagabonds.
It is true that, under terrible forms, the monarchy of the eighteenth century concealed moderate penalties. Its principle was rather to terrify than to injure; or, rather, it was arbitrary and violent from habit and indifference, but, at the same time, instinctively gentle. But summary judicial proceedings were none the less popular with government. The lighter the penalty, the easier the vice of its infliction was forgotten. The mildness of the sentence cloaked the harshness of the trial.
I venture to state—for I hold the proofs in my hand—that precedents and examples for very many of the proceedings of the revolutionary government were found in the records of the measures employed against the lower classes during the two last centuries of the monarchy. The old regime furnished the Revolution with many of its forms; the latter merely added the atrocity of its genius.
[Note w, page 229.]how revolutionary ideas were spontaneously germinating in men’s minds under the old regime.
[Note x, page 230.]The chief engineer wrote to the intendant, in 1781, on the subject of a demand for increased indemnity: “The applicant forgets that these indemnities are a special favor granted to the district of Tours, and that he is fortunate in obtaining partial repayment for his loss. If all the parties in interest were reimbursed on the scale he proposes, four millions would not suffice.”