Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII: THE 15TH OF MAY 1848. - The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville
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CHAPTER VII: THE 15TH OF MAY 1848. - 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).
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THE 15TH OF MAY 1848.
The revolutionary party had not dared to oppose the meeting of the Assembly, but it refused to be dominated by it. On the contrary, it well understood how to keep the Assembly in subjection, and to obtain from it by constraint what it refused to grant from sympathy. Already the clubs rang with threats and insults against the deputies. And as the French, in their political passions, are as argumentative as they are insensible to argument, these popular meeting-places were incessantly occupied in manufacturing theories that formed the groundwork of subsequent acts of violence. It was held that the people always remained superior to its representatives, and never completely surrendered its will into their hands: a true principle from which the false conclusion was drawn that the Paris workmen were the French people. Since our first sitting, a vague and widespread agitation had never ceased to reign in the town. The mob met every day in the streets and squares; it spread aimlessly, like the swell of the waves. The approaches to the Assembly were always filled with a gathering of these redoubtable idlers. A demagogic party has so many heads, chance always plays so great, and reason so small, a part in its actions that it is almost impossible to say, either before or after the event, what it wants or what it wanted. Nevertheless, my opinion then was, and has since remained, that the leading demagogues did not aim at destroying the Assembly, and that, as yet, they only sought to make use of it by mastering it. The attack directed against it on the 15th of May seemed intended rather to frighten than to overthrow it; it was at least one of those equivocal enterprises which so frequently occur in times of popular excitement, in which the promoters themselves are careful not to trace or define precisely their plan or their aim, so as to remain free to limit themselves to a peaceful demonstration or force on a revolution, according to the incidents of the day.
Some attempt of this kind had been expected for over a week; but the habit of living in a continual state of alarm ends in rendering both individuals and assemblies incapable of discerning, amid the signs announcing the approach of danger, that which immediately precedes it. We only knew that there was a question of a great popular demonstration in favour of Poland, and we were but vaguely disturbed at it. Doubtless the members of the Government were better informed and more alarmed than we, but they kept their own counsel, and I was not sufficiently in touch with them to penetrate into their secret thoughts.
Thus it happened that, on the 15th of May, I reached the Assembly without foreseeing what was going to happen. The sitting began as any other sitting might have begun; and what was very strange, twenty thousand men already surrounded the chamber, without a single sound from the outside having announced their presence. Wolowski was in the tribune: he was mumbling between his teeth I know not what commonplaces about Poland, when the mob at last betrayed its approach with a terrible shout, which penetrated from every side through the upper windows, left open because of the heat, and fell upon us as though from the sky. Never had I imagined that a number of human voices could together produce so immense a volume of sound, and the sight of the crowd itself, when it surged into the Assembly, did not seem to me so formidable as that first roar which it had uttered before showing itself. Many members, yielding to a first impulse of curiosity or fear, sprang to their feet; others shouted violently, “Keep your seats!” Everyone sat down again firmly on his bench, and kept silence. Wolowski resumed his speech, and continued it for some time. It must have been the first time in his life that he was listened to in silence; and even now it was not he to whom we listened, but the crowd outside, whose murmurs grew momentarily louder and nearer.
Suddenly Degousée, one of our questors, solemnly mounted the steps of the tribune, silently pushed Wolowski aside, and said, “Contrary to the wishes of the questors, General Courtais has ordered the Gardes Mobiles guarding the doors of the Assembly to sheathe their bayonets.”
After uttering these few words he stopped. This Degousée, who was a very good man, had the most hang-dog look and the hollowest voice imaginable. The news, the man and the voice combined to create a curious impression. The Assembly was roused, but immediately grew calm again; it was too late to do anything: the chamber was forced.
Lamartine, who had gone out at the first noise, returned to the door with a disconcerted air; he crossed the central gangway and regained his seat with great strides, as though pursued by some enemy invisible to us. Almost immediately, there appeared behind him a number of men of the people, who stopped still on the threshold, surprised at the sight of this immense seated assembly. At the same moment, as on the 24th of February, the galleries were noisily opened and invaded by a flood of people, who filled and more than filled them. Pressed forward by the mob who followed and pushed them without seeing them, the first comers climbed over the balustrades of the galleries, trusting to find room in the Chamber itself, the floor of which was not more than ten feet beneath them, hung down along the walls, and dropped the distance of four or five feet into the Chamber. The fall of each of these bodies striking the floor in succession produced a dull concussion which at first, amid the tumult, I took for the distant sound of cannon. While one part of the mob was thus falling into the house, the other, composed principally of the club-leaders, entered by every door. They carried various emblems of the Terror, and waved flags of which some were surmounted by a red cap.
In an instant the mob had filled the large empty space in the centre of the Assembly; and finding itself pressed for room, it climbed all the little gangways leading to our benches, and crowded more and more into these narrow spaces without ceasing its agitation. Amid this tumultuous and incessant commotion, the dust became very thick and the heat so oppressive that perhaps I would have gone out to breathe some fresh air, had it been merely a question of the public interest. But honour kept us glued to our seats.
Some of the intruders were openly armed, others showed glimpses of concealed weapons, but none seemed to entertain a fixed intention of striking us. Their expression was one of astonishment and ill-will rather than enmity; with many of them a sort of vulgar curiosity in course of gratifying itself seemed to dominate every other sentiment; for even in our most sanguinary insurrections there are always a number of people half scoundrels, half sightseers, who fancy themselves at the play. Moreover, there was no common leader whom they seemed to obey; it was a mob of men, not a troop. I saw some drunken men among them, but the majority seemed to be the prey of a feverish excitement imparted to them by the enthusiasm and shouting without and the stifling heat, the close packing and general discomfort within. They dripped with sweat, although the nature and condition of their clothing was not calculated to make the heat very uncomfortable for them, for several were quite bare-breasted. There rose from this multitude a confused noise from the midst of which one sometimes heard very threatening observations. I caught sight of men who shook their fists at us and called us their agents. This expression was often repeated; for several days the ultra-democratic newspapers had done nothing but call the representatives the agents of the people, and these blackguards had taken kindly to the idea. A moment after, I had an opportunity of observing with what vivacity and clearness the popular mind receives and reflects images. I heard a man in a blouse, standing next to me, say to his fellow, “See that vulture down there? I should like to twist its neck.” I followed the movement of his arm and his eyes and saw without difficulty that he was speaking of Lacordaire, who was sitting in his Dominican’s frock on the top bench of the Left. The sentiment struck me as very unhandsome, but the comparison was admirable; the priest’s long, bony neck issuing from its white cowl, his bald head surrounded only with a tuft of black hair, his narrow face, his hooked nose and his fixed, glittering eyes really gave him a striking resemblance to the bird of prey in question.
During all this disorder in its midst, the Assembly sat passive and motionless on its benches, neither resisting nor giving way, silent and firm. A few members of the Mountain fraternized with the mob, but stealthily and in whispers. Raspail had taken possession of the tribune and was preparing to read the petition of the clubs; a young deputy, d’Adelsward, rose and exclaimed, “By what right does Citizen Raspail claim to speak here?” A furious howling arose; some men of the people made a rush at d’Adelsward, but were stopped and held back. With great difficulty, Raspail obtained a moment’s silence from his friends, and read the petition, or rather the orders, of the clubs, which enjoined us to pronounce forthwith in favour of Poland.
“No delay, we’re waiting for the answer!” was shouted on every side. The Assembly continued to give no sign of life; the mob, in its disorder and impatience, made a horrible noise, which by itself alone saved us from making a reply. Buchez, the President, whom some would make out to be a rascal and others a saint, but who undoubtedly, on that day, was a great blockhead, rang his bell with all his might to obtain silence, as though the silence of that multitude was not, under the present circumstances, more to be dreaded than its cries.
It was then that I saw appear, in his turn, in the tribune a man whom I have never seen since, but the recollection of whom has always filled me with horror and disgust. He had wan, emaciated cheeks, white lips, a sickly, wicked and repulsive expression, a dirty pallor, the appearance of a mouldy corpse; he wore no visible linen; an old black frock-coat tightly covered his lean, withered limbs; he seemed to have passed his life in a sewer, and to have just left it. I was told it was Blanqui.1
Blanqui said one word about Poland; then, turning sharply to domestic affairs, he asked for revenge for what he called the massacres of Rouen, recalled with threats the wretchedness in which the people had been left, and complained of the wrongs done to the latter by the Assembly. After thus exciting his hearers, he returned to Poland and, like Raspail, demanded an immediate vote.
The Assembly continued to sit motionless, the people to move about and utter a thousand contradictory exclamations, the President to ring his bell. Ledru-Rollin tried to persuade the mob to withdraw, but nobody was now able to exercise any influence over it. Ledru-Rollin, almost hooted, left the tribune.
The tumult was renewed, increased, multiplied itself as it were, for the mob was no longer sufficiently master of itself to be able even to understand the necessity for a moment’s self-restraint in order to attain the object of its passion. A long interval passed; at last Barbès darted up and climbed, or rather leapt, into the tribune. He was one of those men in whom the demagogue, the madman and the knight-errant are so closely intermingled that it is not possible to say where one ends or the other commences, and who can only make their way in a society as sick and troubled as ours. I am inclined to believe that it was the madman that predominated in him, and his madness became raging when he heard the voice of the people. His soul boiled as naturally amid popular passion as water does on the fire. Since our invasion by the mob, I had not taken my eyes from him; I considered him by far the most formidable of our adversaries, because he was the most insane, the most disinterested, and the most resolute of them all. I had seen him mount the platform on which the President sat, and stand for a long time motionless, only turning his agitated gaze about the Assembly; I had observed and pointed out to my neighbours the distortion of his features, his livid pallor, the convulsive excitement which caused him each moment to twist his moustache between his fingers; he stood there as the image of irresolution, leaning already towards an extreme side. This time, Barbès had made up his mind; he proposed in some way to sum up the passions of the people, and to make sure of victory by stating its object in terms of precision:
“I demand,” said he, in panting, jerking tones, “that, immediately and before rising, the Assembly shall vote the departure of an army for Poland, a tax of a milliard upon the rich, the removal of the troops from Paris, and shall forbid the beating to arms; if not, the representatives to be declared traitors to the country.”
I believe we should have been lost if Barbès had succeeded in getting his motion put to the vote; for if the Assembly had accepted it, it would have been dishonoured and powerless, whereas, if it had rejected it, which was probable, we should have run the risk of having our throats cut. But Barbès himself did not succeed in obtaining a brief space of silence so as to compel us to take a decision. The huge clamour that followed his last words was not to be appeased; on the contrary, it continued in a thousand varied intonations. Barbès exhausted himself in his efforts to still it, but in vain, although he was powerfully aided by the President’s bell, which, during all this time, never ceased to sound, like a knell.
This extraordinary sitting had lasted since two o’clock; the Assembly held out, its ears pricked up to catch any sound from the outside, waiting for assistance to come. But Paris seemed a dead city. Listen as we might, we heard no rumour issue from it.
This passive resistance irritated and incensed the people; it was like a cold, even surface upon which its fury glided without knowing what to catch hold of; it struggled and writhed in vain, without finding any issue to its undertaking. A thousand diverse and contradictory clamours filled the air: “Let us go away,” cried some. . . . “The organization of labour. . . . A ministry of labour. . . . A tax on the rich. . . . We want Louis Blanc!” cried others; they ended by fighting at the foot of the tribune to decide who should mount it; five or six orators occupied it at once, and often all spoke together. As always happens in insurrections, the terrible was mingled with the ridiculous. The heat was so stifling that many of the first intruders left the Chamber; they were forthwith replaced by others who had been waiting at the doors to come in. In this way I saw a fireman in uniform making his way down the gangway that passed along my bench. “We can’t make them vote!” they shouted to him. “Wait, wait,” he replied, “I’ll see to it, I’ll give them a piece of my mind.” Thereupon he pulled his helmet over his eyes with a determined air, fastened the straps, squeezed through the crowd, pushing aside all who stood in his way, and mounted the tribune. He imagined he would be as much at his ease there as upon a roof, but he could not find his words and stopped short. The people cried, “Speak up, fireman!” but he did not speak a word, and they ended by turning him out of the tribune. Just then a number of men of the people caught Louis Blanc in their arms and carried him in triumph round the Chamber. They held him by his little legs above their heads; I saw him make vain efforts to extricate himself: he twisted and turned on every side without succeeding in escaping from their hands, talking all the while in a choking, strident voice. He reminded me of a snake having its tail pinched. They put him down at last on a bench beneath mine. I heard him cry, “My friends, the right you have just won. . . .” but the remainder of his words were lost in the din. I was told that Sobrier was carried in the same way a little lower down.
A very tragic incident nearly put an end to these saturnalia: the benches at the bottom of the house suddenly cracked, gave way more than a foot, and threatened to hurl into the Chamber the crowd which overloaded it, and which fled off in affright. This alarming occurrence put a momentary stop to the commotion; and I then first heard, in the distance, the sound of drums beating the call to arms in Paris. The mob heard it too, and uttered a long yell of rage and terror. “Why are they beating to arms?” exclaimed Barbès, beside himself, making his way to the tribune afresh. “Who is beating to arms? Let those who have given the order be outlawed!” Cries of “We are betrayed, to arms! To the Hôtel de Ville!” rose from the crowd.
The President was driven from his chair, whence, if we are to believe the version he since gave, he caused himself to be driven voluntarily. A club-leader called Huber climbed to his seat and hoisted a flag surmounted by a red cap. The man had, it seemed, just recovered from a long epileptic swoon, caused doubtless by the excitement and the heat; it was on recovering from this sort of troubled sleep that he came forward. His clothes were still in disorder, his look scared and haggard. He exclaimed twice over in a resounding voice, which, uttered from aloft, filled the house and dominated every other sound, “In the name of the people, betrayed by its representatives, I declare the National Assembly dissolved!”
The Assembly, deprived of its President, broke up. Barbès and the bolder of the club politicians went out to go to the Hôtel de Ville. This conclusion to the affair was far from meeting the general wishes. I heard men of the people beside me say to each other, in an aggrieved tone, “No, no, that’s not what we want.” Many sincere Republicans were in despair. I was first accosted, amid this tumult, by Trétat, a revolutionary of the sentimental kind, a dreamer who had plotted in favour of the Republic during the whole existence of the Monarchy. Moreover, he was a physician of distinction, who was at that time at the head of one of the principal mad-houses in Paris, although he was a little cracked himself. He took my hands effusively, and with tears in his eyes:
“Ah, monsieur,” he said, “what a misfortune, and how strange it is to think that it is madmen, real madmen, who have brought this about! I have treated or prescribed for each one of them. Blanqui is a madman, Barbès is a madman, Sobrier is a madman, Huber is the greatest madman of them all: they are all madmen, monsieur, who ought to be locked up at my Salpétrière instead of being here.”
He would certainly have added his own name to the list, had he known himself as well as he knew his old friends. I have always thought that in revolutions, especially democratic revolutions, madmen, not those so called by courtesy, but genuine madmen, have played a very considerable political part. One thing at least is certain, and that is that a condition of semi-madness is not unbecoming at such times, and often even leads to success.
The Assembly had dispersed, but it will be readily believed that it did not consider itself dissolved. Nor did it even regard itself as defeated. The majority of the members who left the House did so with the firm intention of soon meeting again elsewhere; they said so to one another, and I am convinced that they were, in fact, quite resolved upon it. As for myself, I decided to stay behind, kept back partly by the feeling of curiosity that irresistibly retains me in places where anything uncommon is proceeding, and partly by the opinion which I held then, as I did on the 24th of February, that the strength of an assembly in a measure resides in the hall it occupies. I therefore remained and witnessed the grotesque and disorderly, but meaningless and uninteresting, scenes that followed. The mob set itself, amid a thousand disorders and a thousand cries, to form a Provisional Government. It was a parody of the 24th of February, just as the 24th of February was a parody of other revolutionary scenes. This had lasted some time, when I thought that among all the noise I heard an irregular sound coming from the outside of the Palace. I have a very quick ear, and I was not slow in distinguishing the sound of a drum approaching and beating the charge; for in our days of civil disorder, everyone has learnt to know the language of these warlike instruments. I at once hurried to the door by which these new arrivals would enter.
It was, in fact, a drum preceding some forty Gardes Mobiles. These lads pierced through the crowd with a certain air of resolution, although one could not clearly say at first what they proposed to do. Soon they disappeared from sight and remained as though submerged; but a short distance behind them marched a compact column of National Guards, who rushed into the House with significant shouts of “Long live the National Assembly!” I stuck my card of membership in my hat-band and entered with them. They first cleared the platform of five or six orators, who were at that moment speaking at once, and flung them, with none too great ceremony, down the steps of the little staircase that leads to it. At the sight of this, the insurgents at first made as though to resist; but a panic seized them. Climbing over the empty benches, tumbling over one another in the gangways, they made for the outer lobbies and sprang into the court-yards from every window. In a few minutes there remained only the National Guards, whose cries of “Long live the National Assembly” shook the walls of the Chamber.
The Assembly itself was absent; but little by little the members who had dispersed in the neighbourhood hastened up. They shook the hands of the National Guards, embraced each other, and regained their seats. The National Guards cried, “Long live the National Assembly!” and the members, “Long live the National Guard! and long live the Republic!”
No sooner was the hall recaptured, than General Courtais, the original author of our danger, had the incomparable impudence to present himself; the National Guards received him with yells of fury; he was seized and dragged to the foot of the rostrum. I saw him pass before my eyes, pale as a dying man among the flashing swords: thinking they would cut his throat, I cried with all my might, “Tear off his epaulettes, but don’t kill him!” which was done.
Then Lamartine reappeared. I never learnt how he had employed his time during the three hours wherein we were invaded. I had caught sight of him during the first hour: he was seated at that moment on a bench below mine, and he was combing his hair, glued together with perspiration, with a little comb he drew from his pocket; the crowd formed again and I saw him no more. Apparently he went to the inner rooms of the Palace, into which the mob had also penetrated, with the intention of haranguing it, and was very badly received. I was given, on the next day, some curious details of this scene, which I would have related here if I had not resolved to set down only what I have myself observed. They say that, subsequently, he withdrew to the palace then being built, close at hand, and destined for the Foreign Office. He would certainly have done better had he placed himself at the head of the National Guards and come to our release. I think he must have been seized with the faintness of heart that overcomes the bravest (and he was one of these) when possessed of a restless and lively imagination.
When he returned to the Chamber, he had recovered his energy and his eloquence. He told us that his place was not in the Assembly, but in the streets, and that he was going to march upon the Hôtel de Ville and crush the insurrection. This was the last time I heard him enthusiastically cheered. True, it was not he alone that they applauded, but the victory: those cheers and clappings were but an echo of the tumultuous passions that still agitated every breast. Lamartine went out. The drums, which had beat the charge half-an-hour before, now beat the march. The National Guards and the Gardes Mobiles, who were still with us in crowds, formed themselves into order and followed him. The Assembly, still very incomplete, resumed its sitting; it was six o’clock.
I went home an instant to take some food; I then returned to the Assembly, which had declared its sitting permanent. We soon learnt that the members of the new Provisional Government had been arrested. Barbès was impeached, as was that old fool of a Courtais, who deserved a sound thrashing and no more. Many wished to include Louis Blanc, who, however, had pluckily undertaken to defend himself; he had just escaped with difficulty from the fury of the National Guards at the door, and still wore his torn clothes, covered with dust and all disordered. This time he did not send for the stool on which he used to climb in order to bring his head above the level of the rostrum balustrade (for he was almost a dwarf); he even forgot the effect he wished to produce, and thought only of what he had to say. In spite of that, or rather because of that, he won his case for the moment. I never considered him to possess talent except on that one day; for I do not call talent the art of polishing brilliant and hollow phrases, which are like finely chased dishes containing nothing.
For the rest, I was so fatigued by the excitement of the day that I have retained but a dull, indistinct remembrance of the night sitting. I shall therefore say no more, for I wish only to record my personal impressions: for facts in detail it is the Moniteur, not I, that should be consulted.
Auguste Blanqui, brother to Jérôme Adolphe Blanqui the economist.—A. T. de M.