Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIX.: HOW GREAT ADMINISTRATIVE CHANGES HAD PRECEDED THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION, AND OF THE CONSEQUENCES THEREOF. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER XIX.: HOW GREAT ADMINISTRATIVE CHANGES HAD PRECEDED THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION, AND OF THE CONSEQUENCES THEREOF. - Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution 
The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain. It was scanned and originally put online by Google for non-commercial, educational purposes. We have retained the Google watermark as requested but have added tables of contents, pagination, and other educational aids where appropriate.
Fair use statement:
HOW GREAT ADMINISTRATIVE CHANGES HAD PRECEDED THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION, AND OF THE CONSEQUENCES THEREOF.
BEFORE the form of the government was altered, most of the laws regulating the condition of persons and the administration of public business had been repealed or modified.y
The destruction of trade-companies and their partial and incomplete restoration afterward had wholly changed the relation formerly existing between master and workman. That relation was now uncertain—constrained. Neither was the old dominical authority in a state of preservation, nor the guardianship of the state fully developed; so that, between the two, the mechanic, cramped and embarassed, knew not to which side he ought to look for protection or control. This state of uncertainty and anomaly, in which all the lower classes of the large cities had been suddenly placed, led to very grave consequences when the people appeared on the political stage.
A year before the Revolution a royal edict overturned the whole judicial system. New jurisdictions were created, old ones abolished, all the old rules governing the competency of judges changed. Now I have already had occasion to remark that the number of persons who were employed in France, either in hearing cases or executing judgments, was immense. In fact, nearly all the middle class had something to do with the courts. Hence the effect of the law was to disturb the condition and means of several thousand families, whose situation was rendered uncertain and precarious. Nor was it less prejudicial to litigants, who, in the judicial confusion, had some trouble in finding out the law which was applicable to their case, and the court that was to hear it.
But it was especially the radical reform effected in the government proper, in 1787, which threw public business into disorder, and brought trouble into the home of every private family.
I stated that in the pays d’élection, that is to say, in three fourths of France, the whole government of each district (généralité) was placed in the hands of a single man, the intendant, who was not only uncontrolled, but without advisers.
In 1787 provincial assemblies were created, which became the real governors of the country. In every village an elective municipal body took the place of the old parochial assemblies, and, generally speaking, of the syndic also.
Thus a system diametrically opposed to the past, and completely subversive, not only of the old methods of transacting business, but of the relative positions of men, had to be applied to every part of the country by one uniform plan, quite independently of old usages and of the particular situation of the several provinces. So profoundly was the old government imbued with the unitarian spirit of the Revolution by whose hands it was to perish.
It was then plainly seen how large an influence habit exercises over the working of political institutions, and how much more easily men manage their affairs with obscure and complicated laws to which they are used than with a far simpler system which is new to them.
There were in France, under the old regime, all kinds of authorities, infinitely diversified according to locality, with powers of unknown and unlimited scope, so that the field of action of each was always common to several others; yet business was transacted in an orderly and tolerably easy manner. The new authorities, on the contrary, which were few in number, carefully limited in their sphere, and harmoniously adjusted, were no sooner put in force, than they encroached upon one another, and clashed, throwing every thing into confusion and paralyzing each other.
The new system, moreover, had a great fault, which alone would have rendered its execution difficult, at the outset especially; all the authorities it created were corporate.
Under the old monarchy, but two methods of governing were known. Where the government was in the hands of a single individual, he acted without the concurrence of any assembly. Where, on the other hand, assemblies were used, as was the case in pays d’états and in cities, the executive power was confided to no one in particular: the assembly not only governed and controlled the administration, it executed the laws, either directly or through the medium of temporary committees which it appointed.
These being the only two plans known, when one was abandoned the other was adopted. It is not a little singular that, in so enlightened a society, and one in which government had so long played a leading part, no one should have thought of combining the two systems, and drawing a distinction between the executive branch and that which was supervisory or directory, without disuniting them. This idea, simple as it is, never struck any one; it is a discovery which dates from this century, and almost the only discovery in administrative science that we can fairly claim. We shall perceive the effects of the contrary system when we see the old administrative methods applied to politics, the traditions of the detested old regime followed, and the plan of the Provincial States and small municipalities adopted by the National Convention. Causes which had formerly led to nothing but embarassment in the transaction of public business then gave rise to the Reign of Terror.
The Provincial Assemblies of 1787 were authorized to administer their own government, and to supersede the intendant in almost all matters. They were intrusted with the distribution and levy of the taille, under the authority of the central government, and with the selection and general direction of all public works. All the agents of the Bridges and Roads, from the inspector to the overseer of works, were under their immediate orders. The assemblies decided according to their own discretion what was to be done, reported to the ministers, suggested the names of persons deserving reward. They were the guardians of the communes, heard most of the lawsuits which had formerly been brought before the intendant, &c., and discharged a variety of functions that were ill suited to a corporate and irresponsible body, especially when composed of persons who were entirely new to such duties.
The confusion was completed by an error; the intendant was stripped of his power, but the office was retained. After being deprived of their absolute authority, the intendants were expected to aid the assembly and supervise its acts—as though a fallen functionary could ever help to execute and enter into the spirit of laws which dispossess him.
A similar course was adopted with regard to the office of sub-delegate. District assemblies were appointed to discharge its functions under the direction of the Provincial Assembly, and on similar principles.
From all that we can learn of the proceedings of the Provincial Assemblies of 1787, including their own reports, it would appear that from the first they found themselves at war, sometimes open, sometimes secret, with the intendants, who employed all their superior business experience in defeating the aims of their successors.z One assembly complains that it can hardly succeed in wresting from the hands of the intendant the most necessary papers. Another is accused by the intendant of seeking to usurp powers which the edicts reserve to him. He appeals to the minister, who makes no answer, or answers doubtfully, being as new to the business as the others. Sometimes the assembly decides that the intendant has been guilty of maladministration, that the roads he has made are in the wrong direction or in bad repair; he is accused of ruining the communities whose guardian he was. In their inexperience, every thing is obscure to the assemblymen, and they often hesitate, send to distant assemblies for advice, keep couriers constantly on the road from one to another. The intendant of Auch pretends that he is entitled to oppose the assembly, which had authorized a commune to tax itself; the assembly replies that in this matter the intendant may offer advice, but nothing more, and sends to the assembly of Ile de France to ask what that body thinks on the point.
These recriminations and interchange of opinions often delay, and sometimes stop altogether, the transaction of public business. National life seems suspended. The Provincial Assembly of Lorraine—a mere echo of others—declares that “the stagnation of public business is complete, and all good citizens are afflicted thereat.”
Others of these new administrations go wrong by excessive activity and self-reliance; they are full of a restless and disturbing zeal, which prompts them to want to change all the old methods with a stroke of the pen, and to correct the most deeply-rooted abuses in a day. Under the pretext that they are henceforth the guardians of cities, they assume the management of municipal affairs; in a word, their efforts to improve matters succeed in throwing every thing into confusion.
Now consider the immense influence which the government had long exercised in France, the multitude of interests which it affected, the vast number of affairs which depended on it for support or aid; bear in mind that private individuals relied more on it than on themselves to secure the success of their own business, to develop their industry, to insure their means of subsistence, to make and mend their roads, to preserve the peace among them, and to guarantee their well-being; and then calculate how many individuals must have been personal sufferers by its disorder.
The vices of the new organization were more conspicuous in the villages than any where else; for there it not only disturbed the old divisions of authority, but changed suddenly the relative position of individuals, and drove the several orders into mutual hostility.
When Turgot, in 1775, proposed to the king to reform the administration of the rural districts, the greatest difficulty he met with, as he states himself, arose from the unequal distribution of taxes. For the chief parochial business was the distribution, levy, and appropriation of the taxes, and how was it possible to make people, on whom they pressed unequally, and some of whom were wholly exempt from them, deliberate and act in concert on their subject? Every parish contained some men of rank, or churchmen, who paid no taille, peasants who were partially or wholly exempt, others who paid an integral share. These formed three distinct parishes, each of which would have required a separate administration. The problem was insoluble.
Nowhere was the inequality of taxation so conspicuous as in the country; nowhere were people so divided into distinct and mutually hostile classes. Before attempting a collective administration and a free government in villages, the taxes should have been equalized, and distinctions of class and rank modified.
This was not the plan pursued when reform was attempted in 1787. Within the parish, the old distinctions of rank were maintained with the unequal taxation which marked them; yet the whole government was intrusted to elective bodies. This led directly to most singular results.
The curate and the seignior had no business to appear in the assembly which elected municipal officers; for they were respectively members of the orders of the clergy and the nobility, while the officials elected were the special representatives of the Third Estate.
But when the Municipal Council was chosen, the curate and the seignior were members ex officio, for it would not have been seemly to exclude from the government of the parish its two leading inhabitants. It was the seignior who presided over the municipal councilors, though he had not contributed to elect them, and could not take part in the bulk of their acts. Neither seignior nor curate, for instance, could vote on the distribution or levy of the taille, in consequence of their exemption. In return, the Council could not interfere with their capitation-tax, which continued to be regulated according to particular forms by the intendant.
Lest this president—so carefully isolated from the body which he was said to direct—should still exercise an indirect influence in opposition to the interest of the order to which he did not belong, it was proposed to disfranchise his tenants; and the Provincial Assemblies, to which the point was referred, considered the proposal proper, and in conformity with correct principle. Other men of rank, resident in the parish, were excluded from this municipal body, unless they were elected by the peasants; and then, as the regulation is careful to observe, they were representatives of the Third Estate alone.
The seignior then only appeared there to exhibit his subjection to his old subjects, who were now his masters, while he was more like their prisoner than their chief. Indeed, the principal object of the assemblage appeared to be less to bring the different ranks together than to show them how widely they differed, and how adverse their interests were.
Was the office of syndic still so discredited that it was never willingly accepted, or had it risen in importance side by side with the community whose chief agency it was? No one knew precisely.a I have seen a letter from a village bailiff of 1788, complaining indignantly that he has been elected syndic, “which is in violation of the privileges of his office.” The comptroller-general replied that the ideas of this personage required to be rectified; “that he must be made to understand that it was an honor to be elected by his fellow-citizens; and that, moreover, the new syndics would not resemble the functionaries hitherto known by the title, and might expect more consideration at the hands of government.”
On the other hand, the moment the peasantry became a power in the state, the leading citizens of the parishes and men of rank were suddenly attracted to their side. A seignior and high justiciary of a village near Paris complained that the edict prevented his taking part, even as a simple inhabitant of the parish, in the proceedings of the parochial assembly. Others “consent,” they said, “to devote themselves for the public good, and accept the office of syndic.”
It came too late. In proportion to the advances of the wealthy classes, the people of the rural districts shrank back; when they tried to mingle with them, the people sheltered themselves in the isolation into which they had been driven. Some municipal assemblies declined to admit their seignior as a member; others made all sorts of objections to the reception of commoners who were rich. The Provincial Assembly of Lower Normandy states, “We are informed that several municipal assemblies have refused to admit absentee landholders, who, as commoners, have an indisputable right to seats there. Other assemblies have declined to admit farmers who owned no land within their jurisdiction.”
Thus all was novelty, obscurity, conflict between the secondary laws, even before the chief laws which regulated the government of the state had been touched. Those which were still in force were shaken, and there was not a law or a regulation which the government had not announced its intention to abolish or modify.
Our Revolution, then, was preceded by a sudden and thorough remodeling of all administrative rules and habits. The event is barely remembered now, yet it was one of the greatest perturbations that ever marked the history of a great people. It was a first revolution, which exercised a prodigious influence over the second, and rendered it a very different affair from all former or subsequent revolutions.
The first English revolution, though it overthrew the political constitution of the country, and for a time abolished royalty itself, barely touched the secondary class of laws, and made no change in the prevailing customs and usages. Justice and government were administered in the old forms and in the beaten track. At the height of the civil war, it is said that the twelve judges of England continued their semi-annual circuits throughout the country to hold the assizes. The agitation was not universal. The effects of the revolution were circumscribed, and English society, though shaken at the top, was unmoved at the base.
We have ourselves seen in France, since 1789, several revolutions which have altered the whole edifice of government. Most of them have been very sudden, and have been achieved by violence, in open violation of existing laws. Yet none have given rise to long continued or general disorder; they have been scarcely felt, in some cases hardly noticed by the majority of the nation.
The reason is that, since 1789, the administrative system has always remained untouched in the midst of political convulsions. The person of the sovereign or the form of the central power has been altered, but the daily transaction of business has neither been disturbed nor interrupted. Each citizen has remained subject to the laws and usages which he understood, in the small matters which concerned him personally. He had to deal with secondary authorities, with which he had done business before, and which were rarely changed. For if each revolution struck off the head of the government, it left its body untouched and alive, so that the same functionaries continued to perform their functions, in the same spirit, and according to the same routine, under every different political system. They administered justice or managed public affairs in the name of the king, then in that of the republic, lastly in that of the emperor. Fortune’s wheel turning on and on, the same individuals began again to administer and manage in the same way for the king, for the republic, for the emperor; what mattered the name of the master? It was their business to be good administrators and managers—not citizens. Thus, the first shock over, it seemed as though nothing had changed in the country.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, those branches of the government which, though subordinate, are most felt by individuals, and exercise the largest and most steady influence on their welfare, had just been overturned; the government had suddenly changed all its agents and all its principles. At first the state did not seem to have felt a severe shock from this sweeping reform; but every Frenchman had experienced a slight commotion. Not a man but was affected either in his rank, or in his habits, or in his business. Though great state affairs continued to be transacted in a sort of regular order, in those smaller transactions which constitute the routine of every-day life, no one knew whom to obey, where to apply, how to act.
Every part of the nation being thus thrown off the level, one final blow was enough to set the whole in motion, and produce the greatest convulsion and the most terrible disorders that were ever witnessed.
[Note y, page 234.]This prosperity did not cause the Revolution; but the spirit which was to cause it—that active, restless, intelligent, innovating, ambitious, democratic spirit, which imbued the new society, was giving life to every thing, and stirring up and developing every social element before it overthrew the whole.
[Note z, page 238.]conflict of the several administrative powers in 1787.
[Note a, page 242.]I find in the reports of the first provincial assembly of Ile de France this assertion, made by the reporter of a committee: “Hitherto the functions of syndic have been more onerous than honorable, and persons who possessed both means and information suitable to their rank were thus deterred from accepting the office.”