Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI 1: THE COMMITTEE FOR THE CONSTITUTION. - The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville
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CHAPTER XI 1: THE COMMITTEE FOR THE CONSTITUTION. - 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 COMMITTEE FOR THE CONSTITUTION.
I now change my subject, and am glad to leave the scenes of the civil war and to return to the recollections of my parliamentary life. I wish to speak of what happened in the Committee for the Constitution, of which I was a member. This will oblige us to retrace our steps a little, for the appointment and work of this committee date back to before the days of June; but I did not mention it earlier, because I did not wish to interrupt the course of events which was leading us swiftly and directly to those days. The nomination of the Committee for the Constitution was commenced on the 17th of May; it was a long performance, because it had been decided that the members of the committee should be chosen by the whole Assembly and by an absolute majority of votes. I was elected at the first time of voting2 together with Cormenin, Marrast, Lamennais, Vivien, and Dufaure. I do not know how often the voting had to be repeated in order to complete the list, which was to consist of eighteen members.
Although the committee had been nominated before the victory of June, almost all its members belonged to the different moderate sections of the Assembly. The Mountain had only two representatives on it: Lamennais and Considérant; and even these were little worse than chimerical visionaries, especially Considérant, who would have deserved to be sent to a lunatic asylum had he been sincere—but I fear he deserved more than that.
Taking the Committee as a whole, it was easy to see that no very remarkable result was to be expected from it. Some of its members had spent their lives in conducting or controlling the administration during the last government. They had never seen, studied, or understood anything except the Monarchy; and even then they had, for the most part, applied rather than studied its principles. They had raised themselves but little above the practice of business. Now that they were called upon to realize the theories which they had always slighted or opposed, and which had defeated without convincing them, they found it difficult to apply any but monarchical ideas to their work; or, if they adopted republican ideas, they did so now timidly, now rashly, always a little at hap-hazard, like novices.
As for the Republicans proper on the Committee, they had few ideas of any sort, except those which they had gathered in reading or writing for the newspapers; for there were many journalists among them. Marrast had edited the National for ten years; Dornès was at that time its editor-in-chief; Vaulabelle, a man of serious but coarse and even cynical cast of mind, habitually wrote for its columns. He was the man who, a month later, was himself vastly astonished at becoming Minister of Public Worship and Instruction.
All this bore very little resemblance to the men, so certain of their objects and so well acquainted with the measures necessary to attain them, who sixty years before, under Washington’s presidency, so successfully drew up the American Constitution.
For that matter, even if the Committee had been capable of doing its work well, the want of time and the preoccupation of outside events would have prevented it.
There is no nation which attaches itself less to those who govern it than the French Nation, nor which is less able to dispense with government. So soon as it finds itself obliged to walk alone, it undergoes a sort of vertigo, which makes it dread an abyss at every step. At the time I speak of, it had a sort of frenzied desire for the work of framing the Constitution to be completed, and for the powers in command to be, if not solidly, at least permanently and regularly established. The Assembly shared this eagerness, and never ceased urging us on, although we required but little urging. The recollection of the 15th of May, the apprehensions entertained of the days of June and the sight of the divided, enervated and incapable government at the head of affairs were sufficient inducement to us to hasten our labours. But what especially deprived the Committee of its freedom of thought was, it must be confessed, the fear of outside matters and the excitement of the moment. It would be difficult to imagine the effect produced by this forcing of revolutionary ideas upon minds so little disposed to adopt them, and how the latter were being incessantly, and even almost unconsciously, impelled much further than they wished to go, when they were not pushed altogether out of the direction they desired to take. Certainly, if the Committee had met on the 27th of June instead of the 16th of May, its work would have been very different.
The discussion opened on the 22nd of May. The first question was to decide on which side we should tackle this immense work. Lamennais proposed to commence by regulating the state of the communes. He had proceeded in this way himself in a proposal for a Constitution which he had just published, so as to make certain of the first fruits of his discoveries. Then he passed from the question of sequence to that of the main point: he began to talk of administrative centralization, for his thoughts were incapable of sub-dividing themselves; his mind was always wholly occupied by a single system, and all the ideas contained in it adhered so closely together that, so soon as one was uttered, the others seemed necessarily to follow. He therefore explained that a Republic whose citizens are not clever and experienced enough to govern themselves was a monster not fit to live.
Thereupon the Committee took fire: Barrot, who, amid the clouds of his mind, always pretty clearly perceived the necessity for local liberty, eagerly supported Lamennais. I did the same; Marrast and Vivien opposed us. Vivien was quite consistent in defending centralization, for the movement of administrative affairs was his profession, and moreover he was quite naturally drawn towards it. He had all the qualities of a clever legist and an excellent commentator, and none of those necessary to a legislator or statesman. The danger in which he beheld the institutions so dear to him inflamed him; he grew so excited that he began to hold that the Republic, far from restraining centralization, ought even to increase it. One would have said that this was the side on which the Revolution of February pleased him.
Marrast belonged to the ordinary type of French revolutionaries, who have always understood the liberty of the people to mean despotism exercised in the name of the people. This sudden harmony between Vivien and Marrast did not, therefore, surprise me. I was used to the phenomenon, and I had long remarked that the only way to bring a Conservative and a Radical together was to attack the power of the central government, not in application, but in principle. One was then sure of throwing them into each other’s arms.
When, therefore, people assert that nothing is safe from revolutions, I tell them they are wrong, and that centralization is one of those things. In France there is only one thing we can’t set up: that is, a free government; and only one institution we can’t destroy: that is, centralization. How could it ever perish? The enemies of government love it, and those who govern cherish it. The latter perceive, it is true, from time to time, that it exposes them to sudden and irremediable disasters; but this does not disgust them with it. The pleasure it procures them of interfering with every one and holding everything in their hands atones to them for its dangers. They prefer this agreeable life to a more certain and longer existence, and say, “Courte et bonne,” likes the roués of the Regency: “A short life and a merry one.”
The question could not be decided that day; but it was settled in advance by the determination arrived at that we should not first occupy ourselves with the communal system.
Next day, Lamennais resigned. Under the circumstances, an occurrence of this sort was annoying. It was bound to increase and rooten the prejudices already existing against us. We took very pressing and even somewhat humble steps to induce Lamennais to reconsider his resolve. As I had shared his opinion, I was deputed to go and see him and press him to return. I did so, but in vain. He had only been beaten over a formal question, but he had concluded from this that he would not be the master. That was enough to decide him to be nothing at all. He was inflexible, in spite of all I could say in the interest of the very ideas which we held in common.
One should especially consider an unfrocked priest if one wishes to acquire a correct idea of the indestructible and, so to speak, infinite power which the clerical habit and method of thought wield over those who have once contracted them. It was useless for Lamennais to sport white stockings, a yellow waistcoat, a striped necktie, and a green coat: he remained a priest in character, and even in appearance. He walked with short, hurried and discreet steps, never turning his head or looking at anybody, and glided through the crowd with an awkward, modest air, as though he were leaving the sacristy. Add to this a pride great enough to walk over the heads of kings and bid defiance to God.
When it was found that Lamennais’ obstinacy was not to be overcome, we proceeded with other business; and so that no more time might be lost in premature discussions, a sub-committee was appointed to draw up rules for the regulation of our labours, and to propose them to the Committee. Unfortunately, this sub-committee was so constituted that Cormenin, our chairman, was its master and, in reality, substituted himself for it. The permanent power of initiative which he thus possessed, coupled with the conduct of the debates which belonged to him as chairman, had the most baneful influence upon our deliberations, and I am not sure if the faults in our work should not be mainly attributed to him.
Like Lamennais, Cormenin had drawn up and published a Constitution after his own idea, and again, like the former, he expected us to adopt it. But he did not quite know how to put it to us. As a rule, extreme vanity makes the timidest very bold in speaking. Cormenin’s did not permit him to open his mouth so soon as he had three listeners. He would have liked to do as one of my neighbours in Normandy did, a great lover of polemics, to whom Providence had refused the capacity of disputing vivâ voce. Whenever I opposed any of his opinions, he would hurry home and write to me all that he ought to have told me. Cormenin accordingly despaired of convincing us, but hoped to surprise us. He flattered himself that he would make us accept his system gradually and, so to speak, unknown to ourselves, by presenting a morsel to us every day. He managed so cleverly that a general discussion could never be held upon the Constitution as a whole, and that even in each case it was almost impossible to trace back and find the primitive idea. He brought us every day five or six clauses ready drawn up, and patiently, little by little, drew back to this little plot of ground all those who wished to escape from it. We resisted sometimes; but in the end, from sheer weariness, we yielded to this gentle, continuous restraint. The influence of a chairman upon the work of a committee is immense; any one who has closely observed these little assemblies will understand what I mean. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that if several of us had desired to withdraw ourselves from this tyranny, we should have ended by coming to an understanding and succeeding. But we had no time and no inclination for long discussions. The vastness and complexity of the subject alarmed and wearied the minds of the Committee beforehand: the majority had not even attempted to study it, or had only collected some very confused ideas; and those who had formed clearer ones were ill at ease at having to expound them. They were afraid, besides, lest they should enter into violent, interminable disputes if they endeavoured to get to the bottom of things; and they preferred to appear to be in harmony by keeping to the surface. In this way we ambled along to the end, adopting great principles explicitly for reasons of petty detail, and little by little building up the whole machinery of government without properly taking into account the relative strength of the various wheels and the manner in which they would work together.
In the moments of repose which interrupted this fine work, Marrast, who was a Republican of the Barras type, and who had always preferred the pleasures of luxury, the table and women to democracy in rags, told us little stories of gallantry, while Vaulabelle made broad jests. I hope, for the honour of the Committee, that no one will ever publish the minutes (very badly done, for that matter) which the secretary drew up of our sittings. The sterility of the discussions amid the exuberant fecundity of the subject-matter would assuredly provoke surprise. As for myself, I declare that I never witnessed a more wretched display in any committee on which I ever sat.
Nevertheless, there was one serious discussion. It referred to the system of a single Chamber. As a matter of fact, the two parties into which the Committee was silently divided only came to an issue on this one occasion. It was even less a question of the two Chambers than of the general character to be given to the new government: Were we to persevere in the learned and somewhat complicated system of counterpoises, and place powers held in check, and consequently prudent and moderate, at the head of the Republic? Or were we to adopt the contrary course and accept the simpler theory, according to which affairs are placed in the hands of a single power, homogeneous in all its parts, uncontrolled, and consequently impetuous in its measures, and irresistible? This was the subject-matter of the debate. This general question might have cropped up as the result of a number of other clauses; but it was better contained than elsewhere in the special question of the two Chambers.
The struggle was a long one and lasted for two sittings. The result was not for a moment in doubt: for public opinion had pronounced strongly in favour of a single Chamber, not only in Paris but in nearly every department. Barrot was the first to speak in favour of the two Chambers; he took up my thesis and developed it with great talent, but intemperately; for during the Revolution of February, his mind had lost its equilibrium and had never since been able to recover its self-possession. I supported Barrot and returned time after time to the charge. I was a little surprised to hear Dufaure pronouncing against us and doing so with a certain eagerness. Lawyers are rarely able to escape from one of two habits: they accustom themselves either to plead what they do not believe or to persuade themselves very easily of what they wish to plead. Dufaure came under the latter category. The drift of public opinion, of his own passions or interest, would never have led him to embrace a cause which he thought a bad one; but it prompted him with a desire to think it a good one, and that was often sufficient. His naturally vacillating, ingenious and subtle mind turned gradually towards it; and he sometimes ended by adopting it, not only with conviction but with transport. How often have I not been amazed to see him vehemently defending theories which I had seen him adopt with infinite hesitation!
His principal reason for voting this time in favour of a single Chamber in the Legislative Body (and it was the best, I think, that could be found) was that, with us, the Executive Power wielded by one man elected by the people would most certainly become preponderant if there were placed beside him only a legislative body weakened by being divided into two branches. I remember that I replied that that might be the case, but that one thing was quite certain, and that was, that two great powers naturally jealous of one another, and placed in an eternal tête-à-tête (that was the expression I used), without ever having recourse to the arbitrament of a third power, would at once be on bad terms or at war with one another, and would constantly remain so until one had destroyed the other. I added that, if it was true that a President elected by the people, and possessing the immense prerogatives which in France belong to the chief of the public administration, was sometimes able to curb a divided legislative body, a President who should feel himself to possess this origin and these rights would always refuse to become a simple agent and to submit to the capricious and tyrannical will of a single assembly.
We were both in the right. The problem, thus propounded, was insolvable; but the nation propounded it thus. To allow the President the same power that the King had enjoyed, and to have him elected by the people, would make the Republic impossible. As I said later, one must either infinitely narrow the sphere of his power, or else have him elected by the Assembly; but the nation would hear of neither one nor the other.
Dupin completed our defeat: he defended the single Chamber with surprising vigour. One would have thought that he had never held another opinion. I expected as much. I knew him to possess a heart that was habitually self-interested and cowardly, though subject at times to sudden leaps of courage and honesty. I had seen him for ten years prowling round every party without joining any, and attacking all the vanquished: half ape and half jackal, constantly biting, grimacing, gambolling, and always ready to fall upon the wretch who slipped. He showed himself in his true colours on the Committee of the Constitution, or rather he surpassed himself. I perceived in him none of those sudden leaps of which I have just spoken: he was uniformly commonplace from beginning to end. He usually remained silent while the majority were making up their minds; but as soon as he saw them pronounce in favour of democratic opinions, he rushed to place himself at their head, and often went far beyond them. Once, he perceived, when he had gone half-way, that the majority were not going in the direction he had thought; whereupon he immediately stopped short with a prompt and nimble effort of the intelligence, turned round, and hurried back at the same run towards the opinion from which he had been departing.
Almost all the old members of Parliament pronounced in this way against the dual Chamber. Most of them sought for more or less plausible pretexts for their votes. Some pretended that a Council of State would provide the counterpoise of which they acknowledged the necessity; others purposed to subject the single assembly to forms whose slowness would safeguard it against its own impulses and against surprise; but in the end the true reason was always given. On the committee was a minister of the Gospel, M. Coquerel, who, seeing that his colleagues of the Catholic clergy were entering the Assembly, wanted to appear there too, and he was wrong: from the much-admired preacher that he was, he suddenly transformed himself into a very ridiculous political orator. He could hardly open his mouth without uttering some pompous absurdity. On this occasion he was so naïve as to inform us that he continued to favour the dual Chamber, but that he would vote for the single Chamber because public opinion was pushing him on, and he did not wish, to use his own words, to fight against the current. This candour greatly annoyed those who were acting as he did, and mightily delighted Barrot and myself; but this was the only satisfaction we received, for, when it came to voting, there were only three on our side.
This signal defeat disinclined me a little to continue the struggle, and threw Barrot quite out of humour. He no longer appeared except at rare intervals, and in order to utter signs of impatience or disdain rather than opinions.
We passed on to the Executive Power. In spite of all that I have said of the circumstances of the time and the disposition of the Committee, it will still be believed with difficulty that so vast, so perplexing, so novel a subject did not furnish the material for a single general debate, nor for any very profound discussion.
All were unanimous in the opinion that the Executive Power should be entrusted to one man alone. But what prerogatives and what agents should he be given, what responsibilities laid upon him? Clearly, none of these questions could be treated in an arbitrary fashion; each of them was necessarily in connection with all the others, and could, above all, be only decided by taking into special account the habits and customs of the country. These were old problems, no doubt; but they were made young again by the novelty of the circumstances.
Cormenin, according to his custom, opened the discussion by proposing a little clause all ready drawn up, which provided that the head of the Executive Power, or the President, as he was thenceforward called, should be elected directly by the people by a relative majority, the minimum of votes necessary to carry his election being fixed at two millions. I believe Marrast was the only one to oppose it; he proposed that the head of the Executive Power should be elected by the Assembly: he was at that time intoxicated with his own fortune, and flattered himself, strange though this may seem to-day, that the choice of the Assembly would fall upon himself. Nevertheless, the clause proposed by Cormenin was adopted without any difficulty, so far as I can remember; and yet it must be confessed that the expediency of having the President elected by the people was not a self-evident truth, and that the disposition to have him elected directly was as new as it was dangerous. In a country with no monarchical tradition, in which the Executive Power has always been feeble and continues to be very limited, nothing is wiser than to charge the nation with the choice of its representative. A President who had not the strength which he could draw from that origin would then become the plaything of the Assemblies; but with us the conditions of the problem were very different. We were emerging from the Monarchy, and the habits of the Republicans themselves were still monarchical. Moreover, our system of centralization made our position an unique one: according to its principles, the whole administration of the country, in matters of the greatest and of the smallest moment, belonged to the President; the thousands of officials who held the whole country in their hands were dependent upon him alone; this was so according to the laws, and even the ideas, which the 24th of February had allowed to continue in force; for we had retained the spirit of the Monarchy, while losing the taste for it. Under these conditions, what could a President elected by the people be other than a pretender to the Crown? The office could only suit those who hoped to make use of it in order to assist in transforming the Presidential into Royal powers; it seemed clear to me then, and it seems evident to me now, that if it was desired that the President should be elected by the people without danger to the Republic, it was necessary to limit prodigiously the circle of his prerogatives; and even then, I am not sure that this would have sufficed, for his sphere, although thus confined in point of law, would, in habit and remembrance, have preserved its former extent. If, on the other hand, the President was allowed to retain his power, he should not be elected by the people. These truths were not put forward; I doubt whether they were even perceived in the heart of the Committee. However, Cormenin’s clause, although adopted at first, was later made the object of a very lively attack; but it was attacked for reasons different to those I have just given. It was on the day after the 4th of June. Prince Louis Napoleon, of whom no one had thought a few days before, had just been elected to the Assembly by Paris and three departments. They began to fear that he would be placed at the head of the Republic if the choice were left to the people. The various pretenders and their friends grew excited, the question was raised afresh in the Committee, and the majority persisted in its original vote.
I remember that, during all the time that the Committee was occupied in this way, my mind was labouring to divine to which side the balance of power would most generally lean in a Republic of the kind which I saw they were going to make. Sometimes I thought that it would be on the side of the Assembly, and then again on that of the elected President; and this uncertainty made me very uneasy. The fact is, that it was impossible to tell beforehand. The victory of one or other of these two great rivals must necessarily depend upon circumstances and the humours of the moment. There were only two things certain: the war which they would wage together, and the eventual ruin of the Republic.
Of all the ideas which I have expounded, not one was sifted by the Committee; I might even say that not one was discussed. Barrot one day touched upon them in passing, but did not linger over them. His mind (which was sleepy rather than feeble, and which was even able to see far ahead when it took the trouble to look) caught a glimpse of them, as it were, between sleeping and waking, and thought no more of them.
I myself only pointed them out with a certain hesitation and reserve. My rebuff in the matter of the dual Chamber left me little heart for the fight. Moreover, I confess, I was more anxious to reach a quick decision, and place a powerful leader at the head of the Republic, than to organize a perfect republican Constitution. We were then under the divided and uncertain government of the Executive Committee, Socialism was at our gates, and we were approaching the days of June, as we must not forget. Later, after these days, I vigorously supported in the Assembly the system of electing the President by the people, and in a certain measure contributed to its acceptance. The principal reason which I gave was that, after announcing to the nation that we would grant it that right, which it had always ardently desired, it was no longer possible to withhold it. This was true. Nevertheless, I regret having spoken on this occasion.
To return to the Committee: unable and even unwilling to oppose the adoption of the principle, I endeavoured at least to make its application less dangerous. I first proposed to limit in various directions the sphere of the Executive Power; but I soon saw that it was useless to attempt anything serious on that side. I then fell back upon the method of election itself, and raised a discussion on that portion of Cormenin’s clause which treated of it.
The clause, as I said above, laid down that the President should be elected directly, by a relative majority, the minimum of this majority being fixed at two million votes. This method had several very serious drawbacks.
Since the President was to be elected directly by the citizens, the enthusiasm and infatuation of the people was very much to be feared; and moreover, the prestige and moral power which the newly elected would possess would be much greater. Since a relative majority was to be sufficient to make the election valid, it might be possible that the President should only represent the wishes of a minority of the nation. I asked that the President might not be elected directly by the citizens, but that this should be entrusted to delegates whom the people would elect. In the second place, I proposed to substitute an actual for a relative majority; if an absolute majority was not obtained at the first vote, it would fall to the Assembly to make a choice. These ideas were, I think, sound, but they were not new; I had borrowed them from the American Constitution. I doubt whether anyone would have suspected this, had I not said so; so little was the Committee prepared to play its great part.
The first part of my amendment was rejected. I expected this: our great men were of opinion that this system was not sufficiently simple, and they considered it tainted with a touch of aristocracy. The second was accepted, and is part of the actual Constitution.
Beaumont proposed that the President should not be re-eligible; I supported him vigorously, and the proposal was carried. On this occasion we both fell into a great mistake which will, I fear, lead to very sad results. We had always been greatly struck with the dangers threatening liberty and public morality at the hands of a re-eligible president, who in order to secure his re-election would infallibly employ beforehand the immense resources of constraint and corruption which our laws and customs allow to the head of the Executive Power. Our minds were not supple or prompt enough to turn in time or to see that, so soon as it was decided that the citizens themselves should directly choose the President, the evil was irreparable, and that it would be only increasing it rashly to undertake to hinder the people in their choice. This vote, and the great influence I brought to bear upon it, is my most unpleasant memory of that period.
Each moment we came up against centralization, and instead of removing the obstacle, we stumbled over it. It was of the essence of the Republic that the head of the Executive Power should be responsible; but responsible for what, and to what extent? Could he be made responsible for the thousand details of administration with which our administrative legislation is overcharged, and over which it would be impossible, and moreover dangerous, for him to watch in person? That would have been unjust and ridiculous; and if he was not to be responsible for the administration proper, who would be? It was decided that the responsibility of the President should be shared by the ministers, and that their counter-signature should be necessary, as in the days of the Monarchy. Thus the President was responsible, and yet he was not entirely free in his own actions, and he was not able to protect his agents in agents.
We passed to the constitution of the Council of State. Cormenin and Vivien took charge of this; it may be said that they set to work like people who are building up a house for themselves. They did their utmost to make the Council of State a third power, but without success. It became something more than an administrative council, but infinitely less than a legislative assembly.
The only part of our work which was at all well thought out, and arranged, as I think, with wisdom, was that which related to justice. Here the committee felt at home, most of its members being, or having been, barristers. Thanks to these, we were able to save the principle of the irremovability of the judges; as in 1830, it held good against the current which swept away all the rest. Those who had been Republicans from the commencement attacked it nevertheless, and very stupidly, in my opinion; for this principle is much more in favour of the independence of one’s fellow-citizens than of the power of those who govern. The Court of Appeal and, especially, the tribunal charged with judging political crimes were constituted at once just as they are to-day (1851). Beaumont drew up most of the articles which refer to these two great courts. What we did in these matters is far in advance of all that had been attempted in the same direction during sixty years. It is probably the only part of the Constitution of 1848 which will survive.
It was decided at the instance of Vivien that the Constitution could only be revised by a Constituent Assembly, which was right; but they added that this revision could only take place if the National Assembly demanded it by an express vote, given three times consecutively by a majority of four-fifths, which rendered any regular revision almost impossible. I took no part in this vote. I had long been of opinion that, instead of aiming to make our governments eternal, we should tend to make it possible to change them in an easy and regular manner. Taken all round, I thought this less dangerous than the opposite course; and I thought it best to treat the French people like those madmen whom one should be careful not to bind lest they become infuriated by the restraint.
I noticed casually a number of curious opinions that were emitted. Martin (of Strasburg), who, not content with being a Republican of yesterday, one day declared so absurdly in the tribune that he was a Republican by birth, nevertheless proposed to give the President the right to dissolve the Assembly, and failed to see that a right of this kind would easily make him master of the Republic; Marrast wanted a section to be added to the Council of State charged to elaborate “new ideas,” to be called a section of progress; Barrot proposed to leave to a jury the decision of all civil suits, as though a judiciary revolution of this sort could possibly be improvised. And Dufaure proposed to prohibit substitution in the conscription, and to compel everyone personally to perform his military service, a measure which would have destroyed all liberal education unless the time of service had been greatly reduced, or have disorganized the army if this reduction had been effected.
In this way, pressed by time and ill prepared to treat such important subjects, we approached the time appointed for the end of our labours. What was said was: Let us adopt, in the meantime, the articles proposed to us; we can afterwards retrace our steps; we can judge from this sketch how to fix the definitive features and to adjust the portions among themselves. But we did not retrace our steps, and the sketch remained the picture.
We appointed Marrast our secretary. The way in which he acquitted himself of this important office soon exposed the mixture of idleness, giddiness and impudence which formed the basis of his character. He was first several days without doing anything, though the Assembly was constantly asking to know the result of our deliberations, and all France was anxiously awaiting to learn it. Then he hurriedly wrote his report in one night immediately preceding the day on which he was to communicate it to the Assembly. In the morning, he spoke of it to one or two of his colleagues whom he met by chance, and then boldly appeared in the tribune and read, in the name of the Committee, a report of which hardly one of its members had heard a single word. This reading took place on the 19th of June. The draft of the Constitution contained one hundred and thirty-nine articles; it had been drawn up in less than a month. We could not have been quicker, but we might have done better. We had adopted many of the little articles which Cormenin had brought us in turns; but we had rejected a yet greater number, which caused their author an irritation, which was so much the greater in that he had never had an opportunity of giving vent to it. He turned to the public for consolation. He published, or caused to be published, I forget which it was, in all the newspapers an article in which he related what had passed in the Committee, attributing all the good it had done to M. de Cormenin, and all the harm to his adversaries. A publication of this sort displeased us greatly, as may be imagined; and it was decided to acquaint Cormenin with the feeling inspired by his procedure. But no one cared to be the spokesman of the company.
We had among us a workman (for in those days they put workmen into everything) called Corbon, a tolerably right-minded man of firm character. He readily undertook the task. On the next morning, therefore, so soon as the sitting of the Committee had opened, Corbon stood up and, with cruel simplicity and conciseness, gave Cormenin to understand what we thought. Cormenin grew confused, and cast his eyes round the table to see if anybody would come to his aid. Nobody moved. He then said, in a hesitating voice, “Am I to conclude from what has just happened that the Committee wishes me to leave it?” We made no reply. He took his hat and went, without anyone interfering. Never was so great an outrage swallowed with less effort or grimace. I believe that, although enormously vain, he was not very sensitive to insults in secret; and as long as his self-love was well tickled in public, he would not have made many bones about receiving a few cuffs in private.
Many have believed that Cormenin, who from a viscount had suddenly become a Radical, while remaining a devout Catholic, never ceased to play a part and to betray his opinions. I would not venture to say that this was the case, although I have often observed strange inconsistencies between the things he said when talking and those he wrote; and to tell the truth, he always seemed to me to be more sincere in the dread he entertained of revolutions than in the opinions he had borrowed from them. What always especially struck me in him was the shortcomings of his mind. No writer ever to a greater extent preserved in public business the habits and peculiarities of that calling. When he had established a certain agreement between the different clauses of a law and drawn it up in a certain ingenious and striking manner, he thought he had done all that was necessary: he was absorbed in questions of form, of symmetry, and cohesion.
But what he especially sought for was novelty. Institutions which had already been tried elsewhere or elsewhen seemed to him as hateful as common-places, and the first merit of a law in his eyes was to resemble in no way that which had preceded it. It is known that the law laying down the Constitution was his work. At the time of the General Election I met him and he said, with a certain complacency, “Has anything in the world ever been seen like what is seen to-day? Where is the country that has gone so far as to give votes to servants, paupers and soldiers? Confess that no one ever thought of it before.” And rubbing his hands, he added, “It will be very curious to see the result.” He spoke of it as though it were an experiment in chemistry.
PART THE THIRD
MY TERM OF OFFICE
This part was commenced at Versailles on the 16th of September 1851, during the prorogation of the National Assembly.
To come at once to this part of my recollections, I pass over the previous period, which extends from the end of the days of June 1848 to the 3rd of June 1849. I will return to it later if I have time. I have thought it more important, while my recollections are still fresh in my mind, to recall the five months during which I was a member of the Government.
There is a great hiatus in this chapter, due to my not mentioning the discussions and resolutions relating to general principles. Many of the discussions were fairly thorough, and most of the resolutions were tolerably wise and even courageous. Most of the revolutionary and socialistic raptures of the time were combated in them. We were prepared and on our guard on these general questions.
I received 496 votes.