Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XX.: HOW THE REVOLUTION SPRANG SPONTANEOUSLY OUT OF THE PRECEDING FACTS. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER XX.: HOW THE REVOLUTION SPRANG SPONTANEOUSLY OUT OF THE PRECEDING FACTS. - 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 REVOLUTION SPRANG SPONTANEOUSLY OUT OF THE PRECEDING FACTS.
I DESIRE, in conclusion, to put together some of the features which I have separately sketched, and, having drawn the portrait of the old regime, to watch the Revolution spring from it by its own unaided effort.
Let it be borne in mind that France was the only country in which the feudal system had preserved its injurious and irritating characteristics, while it had lost all those which were beneficial or useful; and it will seem less surprising that the Revolution which was to abolish the old constitution of Europe should have broken out there rather than elsewhere.
Let it also be borne in mind that France was the only feudal country in which the nobility had lost its old political rights, lost the right of administering government and leading the people, but had nevertheless retained and even largely increased its pecuniary indemnities and the individual privileges of its members; had, in its subordinate position, remained a close body, growing less and less of an aristocracy and more and more of a caste; and it will at once be understood why its privileges seemed so inexplicable and detestable to the French, and why their hearts were inflamed with a democratic envy that is not yet extinguished.
Let it be borne in mind, finally, that the nobility was separated from the middle classes, which it had eschewed, and from the people, whose affections it had lost; that it stood alone in the midst of the nation, seemingly the staff of an army, really a group of soldierless officers; and it will be easy to conceive how, after an existence of a thousand years, it was overthrown in a single night.
I have shown how the royal government abolished the provincial liberties, usurped the place of the local authorities in three fourths of the kingdom, and monopolized public business, great and small; and I have also shown how Paris consequently became of necessity the master of the country instead of the capital, or rather, became itself the whole country. These two facts, which were peculiar to France, would alone suffice to show how a revolt could achieve the overthrow of a monarchy which had endured so violent shocks during so many centuries, and which, on the eve of its destruction, seemed immovable to its very assailants.
Political life had been so long and so thoroughly extinguished in France—individuals had so entirely lost the habit of mixing in public affairs, of judging for themselves, of studying popular movements, and even understanding the people at all, that the French quite naturally drifted into a terrible revolution without seeing it—the very parties who had most to fear from it taking the lead, and undertaking to smooth and widen the way for its approach.
In the absence of free institutions, and, consequently, of political classes, active political bodies, or organized parties, the duty of leading public opinion, when it revived, naturally fell to the lot of philosophers. Hence it might be expected that the Revolution would be conducted less in view of specific facts than in conformity with abstract principles and general theories. It might be conjectured that, instead of assailing specific laws, it would attack all laws together, and would assume to substitute for the old Constitution of France a new system of government which these writers had conceived.
The Church was mixed with all the old institutions that were to be destroyed. Hence it was plain that the Revolution would shake the religious while it overthrew the civil power; and this done, and men’s minds set free from all the restraints which religion, custom, and law impose on reformers, it was impossible to say to what unheard-of lengths of boldness it might not go. Every careful student of the state of the country could perceive that there were no lengths of boldness that were too distant, no pitch of violence too frantic to be attempted.
“What!” cried Burke, in one of his eloquent pamphlets, “one can not find a man that can answer for the smallest district; not a man who can answer for his neighbor. People are arrested in their houses for royalism, for moderation, or any thing else, and no one ever resists.” Burke had no idea of the state in which the monarchy he so deeply regretted had left us. The old government had deprived the French of the power and the desire to help each other. When the Revolution broke out, there were not ten men in the greater part of France who were in the habit of acting in concert, in a regular manner, and providing for their own defense; every thing was left to the central power. And so, when that power made way for an irresponsible sovereign assembly, and exchanged its former mildness for ferocity, there was nothing to check or delay it for an instant. The same cause which had overthrown the monarchy had rendered every thing possible after its fall.
At no former period had religious toleration, gentleness in the exercise of authority, humanity, and benevolence, been so generally advocated or so thoroughly accepted as sound doctrine as during the eighteenth century: the very spirit of war—last refuge of the spirit of violence—had been limited, and its rigors softened. Out of the bosom of this refined society how inhuman a revolution was about to spring! And yet the refinement was no mere pretense, for no sooner had the first fury of the Revolution been deadened than the spirit of the laws and political customs was softened and assuaged.
To comprehend the contrast between the benign theories and the violent acts of the Revolution, one must remember that it was prepared by the most civilized classes of the nation, and executed by the roughest and most unpolished. The former having no bond of mutual union, no common understanding among themselves, no hold on the people, the latter assumed the whole direction of affairs when the old authorities were abolished. Even where they did not govern they inspired the government; and a glance at the way they had lived under the old regime left no room for doubt as to what they would prove.
The very peculiarities of their condition endowed them with some rare virtues. They had long been free and landholders; they were temperate and proud in their independent isolation. They were hardened to toil, careless of the refinements of life, resigned to misfortune however great, firm in the face of danger. A simple, manly race, hereafter to constitute armies under which Europe shall bow the neck; but hence, also, a dangerous master. Crushed for centuries under the weight of abuses which no one shared with them, living alone, and brooding silently over their prejudices, their jealousies, and their hatreds, they were hardened by their hard experience, and were as ready to inflict as to bear suffering.
Such was the French people when it laid hands on the government, and undertook to complete the work of the Revolution. It found in books a theory which it assumed to put in practice, shaping the ideas of the writers to suit its passions.
The careful student of France during the eighteenth century must have noticed in the preceding pages the birth and development of two leading passions, which were not coeval, and not always similar in their tendencies.
One—the deepest and most solidly rooted—was a violent, unquenchable hatred of inequality. It took its rise and grew in the face of marked inequalities; drove the French with steady, irresistible force to seek to destroy utterly all the remains of the mediæval institutions; and prompted the erection on their ruins of a society in which all men should be alike, and as equal in rank as humanity dictates.
The other—of more recent date, and less solidly rooted—prompted men to seek to be free as well as equal.
Toward the close of the old regime these two passions were equally sincere, and apparently equally active; they met at the opening of the Revolution, and, blending together into one, they took fire from contact, and inflamed the whole heart of France. No doubt 1789 was a period of inexperience, but it was also a period of generosity, of enthusiasm, of manliness, of greatness—a period of immortal memory, upon which men will look back with admiration and respect when all who witnessed it, and we who follow them, shall have long since passed away. The French were then proud enough of their cause and of themselves to believe that they could enjoy freedom and equality together. They planted, therefore, free institutions in the midst of democratic institutions. Not content with pulverizing the superannuated laws which divided men into classes, castes, corporations, and endowed them with rights more unequal even than their ranks, they likewise annulled at a blow those other laws which were a later creation of the royal power, and which had stripped the nation of all control over itself, and set over every Frenchman a government to be his preceptor, his tutor, and, in case of need, his oppressor. Centralization fell with absolute monarchy.
But when the vigorous generation which began the Revolution perished or became enervated, as all generations must which undertake such enterprises; when, in the natural course of events of this character, the love of liberty had been discouraged and grown languid in the midst of anarchy and popular despotism, and the bewildered nation began to grope around for a master, immense facilities were offered for the restoration of absolute government; and it was easy for the genius of him who was destined both to continue and to destroy the Revolution to discover them.
The old regime contained, in fact, a large body of institutions of modern type which, not being hostile to equality, were susceptible of being used in the new order of things, and yet offered remarkable facilities for the establishment of despotism. They were sought for and found in the midst of the ruins. They had formerly given birth to habits, passions, and ideas which tended to keep men divided and obedient; they were restored and turned to account. Centralization was raised from its tomb and restored to its place; whence it happened that, all the checks which had formerly served to limit its power being destroyed, and not revived, there sprang out of the bosom of a nation which had just overthrown royalty a power more extensive, more detailed, more absolute than any of our monarchs had ever wielded. The enterprise seemed incredibly bold and unprecedentedly successful, because people only thought of what they saw before them, and forgot the past. The despot fell; but the most substantial portion of his work remained: his administrative system survived his government. And ever since, whenever an attempt has been made to overthrow an absolute government, the head of Liberty has been simply planted on the shoulders of a servile body.
During the period that has elapsed since the Revolution, the passion for liberty has frequently been extinguished again, and again revived. This will long be the case, for it is still inexperienced, ill regulated, easily discouraged, easily frightened away, easily overcome, superficial, and evanescent. Meanwhile, the passion for equality has retained its place at the bottom of the hearts it originally penetrated, and linked with their dearest sentiments. While the one is incessantly changing, now increasing, now diminishing, now gaining strength, now losing it, according to events, the other has remained uniformly the same, striving for its object with obstinate and often blind ardor, willing to sacrifice every thing to gain it, and ready to repay its grant from government by cultivating such habits, ideas, and laws as a despotism may require.
The Revolution will ever remain in darkness to those who do not look beyond it; it can only be comprehended by the light of the ages which preceded it. Without a clear view of society in the olden time, of its laws, its faults, its prejudices, its suffering, its greatness, it is impossible to understand the conduct of the French during the sixty years which have followed its fall; and even that view will not suffice without some acquaintance with the natural history of our nation.
When I examine that nation in itself, I can not help thinking it is more extraordinary than any of the events of its history. Did there ever appear on the earth another nation so fertile in contrasts, so extreme in its acts—more under the dominion of feeling, less ruled by principle; always better or worse than was anticipated—now below the level of humanity, now far above; a people so unchangeable in its leading features that it may be recognized by portraits drawn two or three thousand years ago, and yet so fickle in its daily opinions and tastes that it becomes at last a mystery to itself, and is as much astonished as strangers at the sight of what it has done; naturally fond of home and routine, yet, once driven forth and forced to adopt new customs, ready to carry principles to any lengths and to dare any thing; indocile by disposition, but better pleased with the arbitrary and even violent rule of a sovereign than with a free and regular government under its chief citizens; now fixed in hostility to subjection of any kind, now so passionately wedded to servitude that nations made to serve can not vie with it; led by a thread so long as no word of resistance is spoken, wholly ungovernable when the standard of revolt has been raised—thus always deceiving its masters, who fear it too much or too little; never so free that it can not be subjugated, nor so kept down that it can not break the yoke; qualified for every pursuit, but excelling in nothing but war; more prone to worship chance, force, success, eclat, noise, than real glory; endowed with more heroism than virtue, more genius than common sense; better adapted for the conception of grand designs than the accomplishment of great enterprises; the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation of Europe, and the one that is surest to inspire admiration, hatred, terror, or pity, but never indifference?
No nation but such a one as this could give birth to a revolution so sudden, so radical, so impetuous in its course, and yet so full of missteps, contradictory facts, and conflicting examples. The French could not have done it but for the reasons I have alleged; but, it must be admitted, even these reasons would not suffice to explain such a revolution in any country but France.
I have now reached the threshold of that memorable Revolution. I shall not cross it now. Soon, perhaps, I may be enabled to do so. I shall then pass over its causes to examine it in itself, and to judge the society to which it gave birth.