Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V: THE FIRST SITTING OF THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY—THE APPEARANCE OF THIS ASSEMBLY. - The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER V: THE FIRST SITTING OF THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY—THE APPEARANCE OF THIS ASSEMBLY. - Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville 
The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, edited by the Comte de Tocqueville and now first translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. With a portrait in Heliogravure (New York: Macmillan, 1896).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
THE FIRST SITTING OF THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY—THE APPEARANCE OF THIS ASSEMBLY.
I stopped at Valognes only long enough to bid goodbye to some of my friends. Many left me with tears in their eyes, for there was a belief current in the country that the representatives would be exposed to great danger in Paris. Several of these worthy people said to me, “If they attack the National Assembly, we will come and defend you.” I feel a certain remorse at having seen only vain words in this promise at the time; for, as a matter of fact, they did all come, they and many more, as I shall show later.
It was only when I reached Paris that I learnt that I had received 110,704 votes out of a possible 120,000. Most of my new colleagues belonged to the old dynastic Opposition: two only had professed republican principles before the Revolution, and were what was called in the jargon of the day “Republicans of yesterday.” The same was the case in most parts of France.
There have certainly been more wicked revolutionaries than those of 1848, but I doubt if there were ever any more stupid; they neither knew how to make use of universal suffrage nor how to do without it. If they had held the elections immediately after the 24th of February, while the upper classes were still bewildered by the blow they had just received, and the people more amazed than discontented, they would perhaps have obtained an assembly after their hearts; if, on the other hand, they had boldly seized the dictatorship, they might have been able for some time to retain it. But they trusted themselves to the nation, and at the same time did all that was most likely to set the latter against them; they threatened it while placing themselves in its power; they alarmed it by the recklessness of their proposals and the violence of their language, while inviting it to resistance by the feebleness of their actions; they pretended to lay down the law to it at the very time that they were placing themselves at its disposal. Instead of opening out their ranks after the victory, they jealously closed them up, and seemed, in one word, to be striving to solve this insoluble problem, namely, how to govern through the majority and yet against its inclination.
Following the examples of the past without understanding them, they foolishly imagined that to summon the crowd to take part in political life was sufficient to attach it to their cause; and that to popularize the Republic, it was enough to give the public rights without offering them any profits. They forgot that their predecessors, when they gave every peasant the vote, at the same time did away with tithes, abolished statute labour and the other seignorial privileges, and divided the property of the nobles among the peasants; whereas they were not in a position to do anything of the kind. In establishing universal suffrage they thought they were summoning the people to the assistance of the Revolution: they were only giving them arms against it. Nevertheless, I am far from believing that it was impossible to arouse revolutionary passions, even in the country districts. In France, every agriculturist owns some portion of the soil, and most of them are more or less involved in debt; it was not, therefore, the landlords that should have been attacked, but the creditors; not the abolition promised of the rights of property, but the abolition of debts. The demagogues of 1848 did not think of this scheme; they showed themselves much clumsier than their predecessors, but no less dishonest, for they were as violent and unjust in their desires as the others in their acts. Only, to commit violent and unjust acts, it is not enough for a government to have the will, or even the power; the habits, ideas, and passions of the time must lend themselves to the committal of them.
As the party which held the reins of government saw its candidates rejected one after the other, it displayed great vexation and rage, complaining now sadly and now rudely of the electors, whom it treated as ignorant, ungrateful blockheads, and enemies of their own good; it lost its temper with the whole nation; and, its impatience exhausted by the latter’s coldness, it seemed ready to say with Molière’s Arnolfe, when he addresses Agnès:
“Pourquoi ne m’aimer pas, madame l’impudente?”
One thing was not ridiculous, but really ominous and terrible; and that was the appearance of Paris on my return. I found in the capital a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, out of work, dying of hunger, but with their minds crammed with vain theories and visionary hopes. I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in a common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror. There were no bonds, no sympathy between these two great sections; everywhere the idea of an inevitable and immediate struggle seemed at hand. Already the bourgeois and the peuple (for the old nicknames had been resumed) had come to blows, with varying fortunes, at Rouen, Limoges, Paris; not a day passed but the owners of property were attacked or menaced in either their capital or income: they were asked to employ labour without selling the produce; they were expected to remit the rents of their tenants when they themselves possessed no other means of living. They gave way as long as they could to this tyranny, and endeavoured at least to turn their weakness to account by publishing it. I remember reading in the papers of that time this advertisement, among others, which still strikes me as a model of vanity, poltroonery, and stupidity harmoniously mingled:
“Mr Editor,” it read, “I make use of your paper to inform my tenants that, desiring to put into practice in my relations with them the principles of fraternity that should guide all true democrats, I will hand to those of my tenants who apply for it a formal receipt for their next quarter’s rent.”
Meanwhile, a gloomy despair had overspread the middle class thus threatened and oppressed, and imperceptibly this despair was changing into courage. I had always believed that it was useless to hope to settle the movement of the Revolution of February peacefully and gradually, and that it could only be stopped suddenly, by a great battle fought in the streets of Paris. I had said this immediately after the 24th of February; and what I now saw persuaded me that this battle was not only inevitable but imminent, and that it would be well to seize the first opportunity to deliver it.
The National Assembly met at last on the 4th of May; it was doubtful until the last moment whether it would meet at all. I believe, in fact, that the more ardent of the demagogues were often tempted to do without it, but they dared not; they remained crushed beneath the weight of their own dogma of the sovereignty of the people.
I should have before my eyes the picture which the Assembly presented at its opening; but I find, on the contrary, that only a very confused recollection of it has lingered in my mind. It is a mistake to believe that events remain present in one’s memory in proportion to their importance or their greatness alone; rather is it certain little particularities which occur, and cause them to penetrate deep into the mind, and fix them there in a lasting manner. I only remember that we shouted, “Long live the Republic” fifteen times during the course of the sitting, trying who could out-shout the other. The history of the Assemblies is full of parallel incidents, and one constantly sees one party exaggerating its feelings in order to embarrass its opponents, while the latter feign to hold sentiments which they do not possess, in order to avoid the trap. Both sides, with a common effort, went either beyond, or in the contrary direction to, the truth. Nevertheless, I think the cry was sincere enough; only it responded to diverse or even contrary thoughts. All at that time wished to preserve the Republic; but some wished to use it for purposes of attack, others for purposes of defence. The newspapers spoke of the enthusiasm of the Assembly and of the public; there was a great deal of noise, but no enthusiasm at all. Everyone was too greatly preoccupied with the immediate future to allow himself to be carried beyond that thought by sentiment of any kind. A decree of the Provisional Government laid down that the representatives should wear the costume of the Conventionals, and especially the white waistcoat with turn-down collar in which Robespierre was always represented on the stage. I thought at first that this fine notion originated with Louis Blanc or Ledru-Rollin; but I learned later that it was due to the flowery and literary imagination of Armand Marrast. No one obeyed the decree, not even its author; Caussidière was the only one to adopt the appointed disguise. This drew my attention to him; for I did not know him by sight any more than most of those who were about to call themselves the Montagnards, always with the idea of keeping up the recollection of ’93. I beheld a very big and very heavy body, on which was placed a sugar-loaf head, sunk deep between the two shoulders, with a wicked, cunning eye, and an air of general good-nature spread over the rest of his face. In short, he was a mass of shapeless matter, in which worked a mind sufficiently subtle to know how to make the most of his coarseness and ignorance.
In the course of the two subsequent days, the members of the Provisional Government, one after the other, told us what they had done since the 24th of February. Each said a great deal of good of himself, and even a certain amount of good of his colleagues, although it would be difficult to meet a body of men who mutually hated one another more sincerely than these did. Independently of the political hatred and jealousy that divided them, they seemed still to feel towards each other that peculiar irritation common to travellers who have been compelled to live together upon the same ship during a long and stormy passage, without suiting or understanding one another. At this first sitting I met again almost all the members of Parliament among whom I had lived. With the exception of M. Thiers, who had been defeated; of the Duc de Broglie, who had not stood, I believe; and of Messrs Guizot and Duchâtel, who had fled, all the famous orators and most of the better-known talkers of the political world were there; but they found themselves, as it were, out of their element, they felt isolated and suspected, they both felt and inspired fear, two contraries often to be met with in the political world. As yet they possessed none of that influence which their talents and experience were soon to restore to them. All the remainder of the Assembly were as much novices as though we had issued fresh from the Ancien Régime; for, thanks to our system of centralization, public life had always been confined within the limits of the Chambers, and those who were neither peers nor deputies scarcely knew what an Assembly was, nor how one should speak or behave in one. They were absolutely ignorant of its most ordinary, everyday habits and customs; and they were inattentive at decisive moments, and listened eagerly to unimportant things. Thus, on the second day, they crowded round the tribune and insisted on perfect silence in order to hear read the minutes of the preceding sitting, imagining that this insignificant form was a most important piece of business. I am convinced that nine hundred English or American peasants, picked at random, would have better represented the appearance of a great political body.
Continuing to imitate the National Convention, the men who professed the most radical and the most revolutionary opinions had taken their seats on the highest benches; they were very uncomfortable up there; but it gave them the right to call themselves Montagnards, and as men always like to feed on pleasant imaginations, these very rashly flattered themselves that they bore a resemblance to the celebrated blackguards whose name they took.
The Montagnards soon divided themselves into two distinct bands: the Revolutionaries of the old school and the Socialists. Nevertheless, the two shades were not sharply defined. One passed from the one to the other by imperceptible tints: the Montagnards proper had almost all some socialistic ideas in their heads, and the Socialists quite approved of the revolutionary proceedings of the others. However, they differed sufficiently among themselves to prevent them from always marching in step, and it was this that saved us. The Socialists were the more dangerous, because they answered more nearly to the true character of the Revolution of February, and to the only passions which it had aroused; but they were men of theory rather than action, and in order to upset Society at their pleasure they would have needed the practical energy and the science of insurrections which only their colleagues in any measure possessed.
From the seat I occupied it was easy for me to hear what was said on the benches of the Mountain, and especially to see what went on. This gave me the opportunity of studying pretty closely the men sitting in that part of the Chamber. It was for me like discovering a new world. We console ourselves for not knowing foreign countries, with the reflection that at least we know our own; but we are wrong, for even in the latter there are always districts which we have not visited, and races which are new to us. I experienced this now. It was as though I saw these Montagnards for the first time, so greatly did their idioms and manners surprise me. They spoke a lingo which was not, properly speaking, the French of either the ignorant or the cultured classes, but which partook of the defects of both, for it abounded in coarse words and ambitious phrases. One heard issuing from the benches of the Mountain a ceaseless torrent of insulting or jocular comments; and at the same time there was poured forth a host of quibbles and maxims; in turns they assumed a very humorous or a very superb tone. It was evident that these people belonged neither to the tavern nor the drawing-room; I think they must have polished their manners in the cafés, and fed their minds on no literature but that of the daily press. In any case, it was the first time since the commencement of the Revolution that this type made any display in one of our Assemblies; until then it had only been represented by sporadic and unnoticed individuals, who were more occupied in concealing than in showing themselves.
The Constituent Assembly had two other peculiarities which struck me as quite as novel as this, although very different from it. It contained an infinitely greater number of landlords and even of noblemen than any of the Chambers elected in the days when it was a necessary condition, in order to be an elector or elected, that you should have money. And also there was a more numerous and more powerful religious party than even under the Restoration: I counted three bishops, several vicars-general, and a Dominican monk, whereas Louis XVIII. and Charles X. had never succeeded in securing the election of more than one single abbé.
The abolition of all quit-rents, which made part of the electors dependent upon the rich, and the danger threatening property, which led the people to choose for their representatives those who were most interested in defending it, are the principal reasons which explain the presence of so great a number of landlords. The election of the ecclesiastics arose from similar causes, and also from a different cause still worthier of consideration. This cause was the almost general and very unexpected return of a great part of the nation towards the concerns of religion.
The Revolution of 1792, when striking the upper classes, had cured them of their irreligiousness; it had taught them, if not the truth, at least the social uses of belief. This lesson was lost upon the middle class, which remained their political heir and their jealous rival; and the latter had even become more sceptical in proportion as the former seemed to become more religious. The Revolution of 1848 had just done on a small scale for our tradesmen what that of 1792 had done for the nobility: the same reverses, the same terrors, the same conversion; it was the same picture, only painted smaller and in less bright and, no doubt, less lasting colours. The clergy had facilitated this conversion by separating itself from all the old political parties, and entering into the old, true spirit of the Catholic clergy, which is that it should belong only to the Church. It readily, therefore, professed republican opinions, while at the same time it gave to long-established interests the guarantee of its traditions, its customs and its hierarchy. It was accepted and made much of by all. The priests sent to the Assembly were treated with very great consideration, and they deserved it through their good sense, their moderation and their modesty. Some of them endeavoured to speak from the tribune, but they were never able to learn the language of politics. They had forgotten it too long ago, and all their speeches turned imperceptibly into homilies.
For the rest, the universal voting had shaken the country from top to bottom without bringing to light a single new man worthy of coming to the front. I have always held that, whatever method be followed in a general election, the great majority of the exceptional men whom the nation possesses definitively succeed in getting elected. The system of election adopted exercises a great influence only upon the class of ordinary individuals in the Assembly, who form the ground-work of every political body. These belong to very different orders and are of very diverse natures, according to the system upon which the election has been conducted. Nothing confirmed me in this belief more than did the sight of the Constituent Assembly. Almost all the men who played the first part in it were already known to me, but the bulk of the rest resembled nothing that I had seen before. They were imbued with a new spirit, and displayed a new character and new manners.
I will say that, in my opinion, and taken all round, this Assembly compared favourably with those which I had seen. One met in it more men who were sincere, disinterested, honest and, above all, courageous than in the Chambers of Deputies among which I had spent my life.
The Constituent Assembly had been elected to make a stand against civil war. This was its principal merit; and, in fact, so long as it was necessary to fight, it was great, and only became contemptible after the victory, and when it felt that it was breaking up in consequence of this very victory and under the weight of it.
I selected my seat on the left side of the House, on a bench from which it was easy for me to hear the speakers and to reach the tribune when I wished to speak myself. A large number of my old friends joined me there; Lanjuinais, Dufaure, Corcelles, Beaumont and several others sat near me.
Let me say a word concerning the House itself, although everybody knows it. This is necessary in order to understand the narrative; and, moreover, although this monument of wood and plaster is probably destined to last longer than the Republic of which it was the cradle, I do not think it will enjoy a very long existence; and when it is destroyed, many of the events that took place in it will be difficult to understand.
The house formed an oblong of great size. At one end, against the wall, was the President’s platform and the tribune; nine rows of benches rose gradually along the three other walls. In the middle, facing the tribune, spread a huge, empty space, like the arena of an amphitheatre, with this difference, that this arena was square, not round. The consequence was that most of the listeners only caught a side glimpse of the speaker, and the only ones who saw him full face were very far away: an arrangement curiously calculated to promote inattention and disorder. For the first, who saw the speaker badly, and were continually looking at one another, were more engaged in threatening and apostrophizing each other; and the others did not listen any better, because, although able to see the occupant of the tribune, they heard him badly.
Large windows, placed high up in the walls, opened straight outside, and admitted air and light; the walls were decorated only with a few flags; time had, luckily, been wanting in which to add to them all those spiritless allegories on canvas or pasteboard with which the French love to adorn their monuments, in spite of their being insipid to those who can understand them and utterly incomprehensible to the mass of the people. The whole bore an aspect of immensity, together with an air that was cold, solemn, and almost melancholy. There were seats for nine hundred members, a larger number than that of any of the assemblies that had sat in France for sixty years.
I felt at once that the atmosphere of this assembly suited me. Notwithstanding the gravity of events, I experienced there a sense of well-being that was new to me. For the first time since I had entered public life, I felt myself caught in the current of a majority, and following in its company the only road which my tastes, my reason and my conscience pointed out to me: a new and very welcome sensation. I gathered that this majority would disown the Socialists and the Montagnards, but was sincere in its desire to maintain and organize the Republic. I was with it on these two leading points: I had no monarchic faith, no affection nor regrets for any prince; I felt called upon to defend no cause save that of liberty and the dignity of mankind. To protect the ancient laws of Society against the innovators with the help of the new force which the republican principle might lend to the government; to cause the evident will of the French people to triumph over the passions and desires of the Paris workmen; to conquer demagogism by democracy—that was my only aim. I am not sure that the dangers to be passed through before it could be attained did not make it still more attractive to me; for I have a natural inclination for adventure, and a spice of danger has always seemed to me the best seasoning that can be given to most of the actions of life.