Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: CHILDHOOD—EARLY TRAVELS IN ITALY AND SICILY—ENTRANCE INTO PUBLIC LIFE—THE RESTORATION (1827-1828)—REVOLUTION OF 1830—INTENDED EXPEDITION TO THE UNITED STATES. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
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CHAPTER I.: CHILDHOOD—EARLY TRAVELS IN ITALY AND SICILY—ENTRANCE INTO PUBLIC LIFE—THE RESTORATION (1827-1828)—REVOLUTION OF 1830—INTENDED EXPEDITION TO THE UNITED STATES. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). Vol. 1.
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CHILDHOOD—EARLY TRAVELS IN ITALY AND SICILY—ENTRANCE INTO PUBLIC LIFE—THE RESTORATION (1827-1828)—REVOLUTION OF 1830—INTENDED EXPEDITION TO THE UNITED STATES.
Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocoqueville was born in Paris on the 29th July, 1805. His mother, Mademoiselle Le Pelletier de Rosambo, was a grand-daughter of M. de Malesherbes; his father, the Comte de Tocqueville,* was, under the Restoration, successively Prefect of Metz, of Amiens, of Versailles, and a peer of France.
Brought up entirely at home, Alexis de Tocqueville learnt little, if good manners and a high tone of feeling can be reckoned as little. It is certain that his early education was much neglected; he commenced his classical studies at the college of Metz, which he entered whilst his father was prefect of the town. Though weak at starting in Latin and Greek, he was, from the beginning, first in French composition, where imagination is of more importance than correctness; and not long ago the Imperial Academy of Metz recorded with pride, that in the year 1822 Alexis de Tocqueville, at that time a student in rhetoric, had carried off the first prize.* After this brilliant termination of studies in which he often regretted that he had not been grounded, in the year 1826 he set out on his travels.
Accompanied by his brother Edward,† his elder and guide, he ran through Italy, visited the principal towns, and made an excursion into Sicily. In this tour he already gave proofs of the eager curiosity and of the activity of mind which he brought to bear on all subjects. This is evidenced by two bulky MSS. containing his notes and the impressions of each day. Certainly these are not works of the highest order; and their author was under no illusion as to the merit of his first-born, for on the cover of one is written, in his hand, “Very indifferent.” But the criticism is, to say the least, severe; and even if it were deserved, it would be, nevertheless, an interesting study to follow the first steps of so great a writer, to note the progress of his mind, groping, wandering, erring, and at length, after many wanderings, recovering the right path.
It is, indeed, curious to observe the young traveller; at first he treats Italy after the fashion of ordinary tourists. He visits scrupulously every gallery; does not pass over one picture, nor omit one medal; he notes all the works of the great masters. He does still more; he commences a serious investigation of the principles of ancient architecture, of which he undertakes exactly to define the different schools, for the purpose, no doubt, of regulating his taste. He evidently took little pleasure in this study, for it is soon abandoned. Rome, not only rich in works of art, but in which every stone is a record of past greatness, suggests to him his first work of imagination.
The author supposes that at the end of a long walk in the Eternal City, he climbs the Capitol from the side of the Campo Vaccino, and, overcome with fatigue, falls asleep on the ground. In his dream, Ancient Rome appears to him with all her past glory, her heroes, her power, and, above all, her liberty; he sees defile before him all the great events, and all the great men of Roman antiquity, from the foundation of the Republic to the murder of Cæsar; from the first Brutus to the accession of Augustus.
Suddenly he is awakened by a procession of bare-footed friars ascending the steps of the Capitol on their way to their church, whilst a cow-herd rings his bell to assemble the cattle browsing in the Forum.
“I arose,” he continues, “and turned slowly towards my home, looking back from time to time, and saying to myself: Poor human nature; what then art thou? . . . .”
This sketch, which, to be filled up worthily, would have required all the taste and the imagination that he had, and also the learning which at that time he had not, was not the best adapted to the powers of Alexis de Tocqueville. Still, from this work, in which he dates the downfal of Rome from the day when she lost her liberty, the future character of the man may be predicted.
It is still more perceivable in the tour in Sicily, where, witnessing the misery inflicted on the people by a detestable government, he is led to reflect upon the primary conditions on which depends the decay or the prosperity of nations. His first intention was to describe only the external aspect of the country; but soon he paints the institutions and manners, and ideas take the place of descriptions.
He was finishing in Sicily his travels and his MS., when a royal order of the 5th of April, 1827, re-called him to France. He was appointed juge auditeur,* and attached in this capacity to the Tribunal of Versailles, of which town the Comte de Tocqueville was prefect. He was just one-and-twenty, the age required by law for entering the magistrature.
If Alexis de Tocqueville had been an ordinary man, his destiny would have been ready traced: his name, his family, his social position, his profession pointed out his path. Grandson of Malesherbes, he would have been sure of attaining the highest places in the magistrature, even without an effort, merely trusting to the lapse of time. Young, agreeable, connected with all the great families, fitted to aspire to the most brilliant alliances, of which many had already been proposed to him, he would have married some rich heiress. His life, confined by narrow prescribed limits, would have glided by, at any rate calmly and honourably, in the regular discharge of the duties of his office, in the comfortable enjoyment of a large salary, amidst the narrow but never failing interests of the judicial bench, and in the sober, peaceful happiness of private life.
This scheme of existence was suited neither to his intellect nor to his disposition; and at starting he resolved to owe his advancement to himself alone; he sought, in the career on which he entered, an opening for the exercise of his talents. It is well known that the office of juge auditeur, (since converted into that of juge suppléant) did not involve any very active duty, unless the officer was called to take part in the business of the ministère public. This employment Alexis de Tocqueville solicited and obtained. There he found among his colleagues M. Gustave de Beaumont, with whom he commenced an intercourse which soon ripened into intimacy, and became afterwards the closest friendship.
Alexis de Tocqueville had but a few times occupied the seat of the Ministère public in the cour d’assises of Versailles, when he became distinguished. His grave style of speaking, his serious turn of thought, the ripeness of his judgment, and the superiority of his intelligence, raised him high above the ordinary level. His chief success was not with the crowd, but no important suffrage was ever wanting to him. No doubt was entertained of the brilliancy of his prospects, and more than one président des assises foretold his high advancement. It must be admitted, however, that in these predictions Malesberbes was thought of more than Montesquieu.
Yet, though all his qualities were admirably suited to the magistrature, that was not, perhaps, the calling most suited to his abilities. Alexis de Tocqueville possessed in the highest degree the rare faculty of generalisation; and, precisely because here lay his superiority, this was the constant tendency of his mind. The judge follows ordinarily an opposite tendency, which he derives from the habits of his profession, which store his mind with what is specific, and with particular cases. Tocqueville’s thinking power was cramped by being imprisoned within the bounds of his peculiar duties. This irksomeness increased in proportion to the trifling character of the case. On the other hand, his talent increased in proportion to the importance of the cause, as if the bonds which fettered his intelligence were snapped or loosened.
Need it be added, that a mind so eager for independence and freedom often left the narrow sphere of law to enter the arena, at that time unreservedly open to all questions of general political interest? When their judicial labours were over, when the duties of the audience and parquet had been fulfilled, the two colleagues, now friends, united as much by the similarity of their tastes as by that of their ideas and opinions, threw themselves into studies of their own selection, especially those connected with history. And then what activity and emulation! how delightful was this laborious life, how sincere their pursuit of truth, and what aspirations after a future—after a future unbounded and cloudless, such as the passionate faith of youth reveals to ardent minds and generous hearts at a season of enthusiastic belief.
Those who did not witness that period (from 1827 to 1828), and who are acquainted only with the languor and the indifference of our own, will hardly comprehend its excitement. Twelve years had elapsed since the fall of the empire. For the first time France had known liberty, and had loved her. This liberty, a comfort to some, the greatest of blessings to others, had created for all a new country. Institutions were substituted for the will of one man; new habits arose amidst profound peace. The development of instincts, feelings, and wants, till then unnoticed, had contributed to awaken a new life in a regenerate nation. Yes, it must be acknowledged that, setting aside the old revolutionary and imperial parties whose liberalism was a lie, and in spite of the disagreements inseparable from freedom, France was at that time sincerely liberal, passionately attached to her new institutions, jealous in maintaining them, quickly alarmed by the dangers which threatened them, and ready to see in their destruction or preservation her own degradation or grandeur. Now, for the first time, the great problem of constitutional liberty was seriously stated in France. The country seemed to feel the peril of the experiment. With what anxiety she watched its progress! with what emotion she looked for the slightest symptoms of a storm, whether coming from the people or from the sovereign! What interest was then taken in the smallest incidents of public life—the arbitrary act of an official, a prosecution for libel, the verdict of a jury, a new book, a word let fall in one of the Chambers, sometimes a newspaper article!
It was precisely at this moment that the struggle between the parties which divided the Government as much as the State, was about to assume the most angry character. A few days more, and between the Government of the Restoration and its downfal, there would be only the ministry of M. de Martignac, that last attempt of the moderate party, whose success might have spared France many misfortunes.
Alexis de Tocqueville looked on at this mighty struggle with the strong feelings common to the young men of that period, to which he added a wisdom and a store of observations which were rare. Some of his political opinions became thenceforth fixed principles. Of these the chief was, that every people, worthy of the name of a nation, should participate in the conduct of its own affairs, and that without free institutions there can never be any real greatness for a country, or true dignity for its rulers; his pride would not brook that he should ever serve a master. This was for him a fundamental truth, derived both from his head and from his heart. He hated equally revolution and its offspring, absolute power. Admitting every form of free government, even the republican, he was firmly convinced that the form best suited to the state of France and the habits of her people was constitutional monarchy, in which the nation is represented, whilst the authority of the sovereign is preserved; and if he prayed for the maintenance of the elder branch of the Bourbons, it was because he believed its sway to be more favourable to liberty than that of a dynasty ushered in by a revolution.
While however he thought possible, and earnestly desired, the success of those who were endeavouring to reconcile the monarchy with liberty, Tocqueville saw clearly the difficulty of the enterprise, and the depth of the abyss already opening beneath the feet of our generation; and this gave a solemn meaning in his eyes to the great drama, the scenes of which were beginning to unfold themselves.
The ordinary superficial view never satisfied him; he went further. Already a retrospective glance at our history gave him an insight into the great questions which he afterwards explored while seeking an explanation of his own time. He perceived that, notwithstanding the outward peace which reigned on the surface of French society, we were actually in a state of revolution. But what principally struck him was, the essentially democratic character of that revolution; it was the principle of equality pervading and domineering over the existing society. The great problems, which were to be the business of his life, which he would one day go to a new world to study, already rose to his mind.
How to reconcile equality, which separates and isolates men, with liberty? How to prevent a power, the offspring of democracy, from becoming absolute and tyrannical? Where to find a force able to contend against this power among a set of men, all equal, it is true, but all equally weak and impotent? Was the fate of modern society to be both democracy and despotism?—These were the questions which from that time filled his thoughts, and disturbed his mind.
It has been said with truth, that Tocqueville was a thinker; he was so, and a thinker whose brain, always at work, never allowed itself a moment’s rest. The term thinker would be, however, inappropriate, if applied to him in the ordinary sense of an abstract philosopher who takes pleasure in metaphysical speculations; who loves knowledge for its own sake, and is enthusiastically attached to ideas and theories, independently of their application. Such is the real philosopher; such was not Tocqueville, whose speculations had always a practical and definite object. In fact, he was little versed in mental science. He had not much taste for it; he was imperfectly acquainted with its language; and whether wrongly or rightly, its controversies always seemed to him more or less barren. At one time, in his early youth, his mind, impatient of doubt, had sought for help in metaphysics; but in that quarter he had found no aid. His notes of this period bear witness to the painful efforts of his mind, when in the earnest search for truth, he discovers the imperfection and the impotence of the human reason; he stops short, and seems to give up that chimera in the following sorrowful words:—
“There is no absolute truth;” and a little further on he writes still more sadly:—
“If I were desired to classify human miseries, I should do so in this order:—
As is the case with all minds seeking for light, he began with doubt; but like all strong characters he clung firmly to the principle, which he at length adopted as the best and truest, and made it the absolute rule of his conduct. Slow at first to perceive where his duty lay, he did not hesitate to follow it when once ascertained. He was as resolute in action as he had been slow in resolving. Essentially practical, in all intellectual speculations he considered the past only as it affected the present, and foreign countries only with a view to his own. Thus his historical studies, and especially those relating to the first French revolution, were all treated in relation to the actual state of France, and to the events of the time, becoming every day more serious, and threatening fresh disturbances, perhaps even another revolution.
This revolution broke out. Without hesitation, but without enthusiasm, Alexis de Tocqueville joined the ranks of the government of 1830. He possessed already a faculty which he always retained, that of seeing quicker and further than others. The excitement to which a great popular movement gives birth, the enthusiasm, the pleasurable feelings which usually welcome a new régime—to none of these things was he sensible. He considered the revolution of July as a calamity; he feared lest a prince thus raised to the throne should rush into war in order to be feared, or be weakly pacific in order to be pardoned. Still the constitution of 1830 was the second, perhaps the last chance offered to France of the establishment of constitutional monarchy and of political freedom. He could not refuse his adhesion; he gave it with sadness, and six months afterwards he started for the United States.
No powerful link kept him in France, and an irresistible curiosity drove him to America. He thought nothing of his prospects in the magistracy. What chance had the son of a prefect under the restoration of receiving from the government of July a promotion, which the government of the restoration had not bestowed on the grandson of Malesherbes, after four years’ service as juge auditeur at Versailles? On the other hand, the revolution which he had just witnessed, the violent scenes which it had occasioned, the passions which it had excited, and the strange theories which it had brought to light, served only to increase the interest and the weight of the questions which disturbed his mind. Every day he became more and more convinced that France, in irresistibly drifting into democracy, was also drifting into its perils. He determined to visit the only great country in which those dangers have been conquered, and where perfect equality reigns side by side with liberty. He communicated his scheme to his late colleague at Versailles, then substitut du Procureur du Roi in Paris, who was charmed with the proposal. Obstacles, however, stood in their way: as magistrates they both required leave of absence, and a legitimate cause for obtaining it. At that time, as is always the case immediately after a revolution, all innovation was held in honour, and a reform of real but of secondary importance (that of the prisons) attracted public attention. A penitentiary system, which had proved successful in the United States, was talked of. The two young magistrates presented to the then Minister of the Interior, the Comte de Montalivet, a paper in which, after setting forth the question, they offered to study it on the spot, if they might be sent on an official mission. It was granted to them; and the Minister of Justice having consented, the two friends set out with a leave obtained in due form. It has often been said that this mission was the cause of Alexis de Tocqueville’s expedition. It was in truth only the pretext. His real and long premeditated object was to study the customs and institutions of American society.
[*]In the last years of his life, the Count de Tocqueville published two remarkable works: the title of the first is “Histoire Philosophique du règne de Louis XV.” 2 vols. 8vo.; and that of the second, “Coup-d’œil sur le règne de Louis XVI.” 1 vol. 8vo.
[*]See the speech delivered on the 15th May, 1859, by M. Salmon, President of the Imperial Academy of Metz.
[†]Then Baron, afterwards Viscount de Tocqueville, his second brother. They were both older than himself.
[*]We have in English no exact equivalent for the French terms. I have, therefore, put them into the text without attempting to translate them, hoping that they will be sufficiently explained by the following short sketch of the French system. There are, at present, in France about 6,300 judges, of whom about 2,500 belong to the Tribunaux de Prémière Instance, courts resembling our county courts, and about 360 in number. To every court is attached a Ministère Public, consisting of a Procureur Impérial, called, when the office was instituted by the law of the 27 Ventôse an 8, Commissaire du Gouvernement, and afterwards Procureur du Roi, and of his substitutes.