Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV.: POLITICAL LIFE. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
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CHAPTER IV.: POLITICAL LIFE. - 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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From 1839 to 1848, Tocqueville represented uninterruptedly the arrondissement of Valognes, and always voted with the constitutional opposition.
Those times are too near to us to allow his public life to be freely discussed. Though strongly attached to constitutional monarchy, Tocqueville resisted a policy which it would not be advisable to attack now, even if one wished to do so. Opposed to him were men whom he respected, and who have ceased to be adversaries. Any thing resembling a reproach addressed to these statesmen, some of whom are living, would have been disavowed by him, and would discredit his memory. Nor would there be any use in reviving questions between men now united by feelings far more important than their past differences or their past rivalry.
The time will no doubt come, when the conduct of the government and of the opposition will be submitted to the judgment of history. And when this great cause is tried, among the materials of the pleadings will be taken into account many of the speeches of Tocqueville, his votes, his acts, and the moderate but firm resistance to Louis Philippe’s government, which he maintained up to the 24th of February. But that time has not yet arrived, and any intermediate discussion of the subject would be premature.
Without offending, however, any person, or wounding any party, it may even now be said, that Tocqueville passed through parliamentary life with distinction. That his intentions were always upright; that his ambition was always public-spirited; that his views were profound; that his eloquence was grave, often brilliant, often applauded, always listened to with respect; that his powers of judgment and of reasoning were of a high order, and that at a time when no defect escaped notice, his character never met with an attack or even a suspicion.
It must be admitted that in politics he did not, as he had done in letters, assume at once the highest rank. Though possessing the principal qualities which form a great statesman, he wanted some of those which form a great speaker, and in parliamentary government the latter character is necessary to the former. He spoke with ease and with great eloquence, but his voice partook of the general weakness of his body. Perhaps, too, he was too much excited by the discussion. He was too susceptible, too sensitive. The battle of a debate requires from the speaker the vigour which war demands from the soldier, and the coolness which it exacts from the general, for the speaker is both general and soldier; he fights and he commands. Tocqueville had not strength for such struggles, his health always suffered from them. It was seldom, therefore, that he could engage in them; and speaking seldom he could not be a leader.
Tocqueville, as a speaker, had also to contend with his habits as a writer. Examples without doubt may be cited of great writers who have been illustrious as speakers; but it is a general truth, that to write a book is a bad preparation for public and unpremeditated speaking. Literary labour is regular and methodical. The writer proposes to himself an ideal perfection, inconsistent with the unforeseen or accidental turn of a debate. Almost all the merits of a book are defects in a speech. A great book is written for the future. A speech is made for the present. Its business is the business of to-day. A book is thought; a speech is action. What is explained in a book is only hinted in a debate.
Tocqueville brought to the chamber the habits and the methods of an author. A speech is merely a mode of action; he considered it too much as a work of art. To fit an idea to be presented to the Chamber, it was requisite, of course, that it should be true, but he also required that it should be new. He abhorred common places: an admirable feeling in an author, but most mischievous to one who addresses a large assembly—an audience which delights in common-place.
Tocqueville had also contracted, both from theory and from practice, another habit, always excellent in a writer, but sometimes bad in a speaker. He never employed more words than were absolutely necessary to convey his thoughts to an intelligent reader.
A speaker ought to let the length of his discourse depend on the impressions produced on his audience. He ought to observe, sentence after sentence, those impressions, to end his explanation as soon as he finds that he is understood, to carry it on in a new shape if he sees that it has not been fully comprehended; and, passing rapidly over what may be offensive, and dwelling on what meets with the sympathy of his hearers, to persevere until their conviction is apparent. All this is opposed to the habits of a writer, and above all, of a good writer. If Tocqueville was not great in the chamber, it is because he was superior in his own study. His principal defect as a speaker was due to his principal merit as a writer.
This accounts for the cold reception of some of his speeches, which we now read with deep interest. What they lost in immediate effect they will gain in durability.
It may be added that during this whole period, from 1839 to 1848, he was in a position unfavourable to eloquence. He could be eloquent only when impelled, inspired, and sustained by deep and vehement feelings. Such feelings were not excited by the character which his conscience prescribed to him, that of a member of the opposition. He was too cautious, too reserved, perhaps too foreseeing, to act that character well. There was nothing of the tribune in him. Nature formed him rather to act with a government than with an opposition. This was proved at a later period of his political life, and appeared even at this time, when his exclusion from office deprived him of many opportunities for showing his administrative talents. Thus in 1839, soon after his election, having been directed to prepare a report on the abolition of colonial slavery, he not only laid down, ably and firmly, the great principles of justice and humanity, which ultimately gained this sacred cause, but by the respect with which he treated existing interests and vested rights, he prepared the government and the public to make concessions, and the colonists to accept a compromise.
Thus again, in the next year, 1840, charged with a report on prison reform, he carried, first in the committee and afterwards in the Chamber, all the important clauses of a bill, which was, in fact, an application of his own theories on the subject.
Later, in 1846, when the great question of our African empire was before the Chambers, Tocqueville, who, for the purpose of studying it, had twice travelled in Algeria (once, at the risk of his life), in the spring of 1841, and again in the winter of 1845, became a member of the commission appointed by the Chamber, and prepared, in the name of the commission, a report, in which the principles of colonization are so well treated, that even at this day, the government could do no better than consult it in the framing of regulations, and in the general management of the colonies. Tocqueville was eminently practical, to the great surprise, and, perhaps, disgust of those who maintained that the man of theory must be inferior in action. He possessed the two principal qualities for a statesman; first, the glance which penetrates into the future; discovers beforehand the path to be followed, the rocks to be avoided; which sees quicker and farther than others; a gift not only precious to a minister, but to every chief of a party. Secondly, a knowledge of men. No one knew better how to attach them, and to make use of them; to discern their talents and deficiencies, and turn both to account; to ask from every one the service for which he was best fitted; and when it was finished, to dismiss his agents, satisfied with him and with themselves. Very frank, and very discreet; never reserved, saying only what he intended to say, to the extent and at the time that he wished to say it, and expressing it with an exquisite grace, which gave a value to every word, Tocqueville’s capacious mind, eminent talent, and high character, placed him among the remarkable men who, under a representative government, and in ordinary times, are formed to take a chief part in the affairs of their country.
In a speech, pronounced on the 27th of January, 1848, in the chamber of deputies, Tocqueville, with an almost prophetic voice, announced the revolution which was on the point of breaking out.
“. . . . It is supposed,” said he, “that there is no danger because there is no collision. It is said, that as there is no actual disturbance of the surface of society, revolution is far off.
“Gentlemen, allow me to tell you, that I believe you deceive yourselves. Without doubt the disorder does not break out in overt acts, but it has sunk deeply into the minds of the people. Look at what is passing in the breasts of the working classes, as yet, I own, tranquil. It is true that they are not now inflamed by purely political passions in the same degree as formerly; but do you not observe that their passions from political have become social? Do you not see gradually pervading them opinions and ideas, whose object is not merely to overthrow a law, a ministry, or even a dynasty, but society itself? to shake the very foundations on which it now rests? Do you not listen to their perpetual cry? Do you not hear incessantly repeated, that all those above them are incapable and unworthy of governing them? that the present distribution of wealth in the world is unjust, that property rests upon no equitable basis? and do you not believe that when such opinions take root, when they spread till they have almost become general, when they penetrate deeply into the masses, that they must lead sooner or later, I know not when, I know not how, but that sooner or later they must lead to the most formidable revolutions?
“Such, gentlemen, is my deep conviction; I believe that at the present moment we are slumbering on a volcano (murmurs), of this I am thoroughly convinced . . . .” (excitement).
Tocqueville, therefore, was more grieved than surprised by the revolution of the 24th February, 1848; but the pain it gave him was no less great. He had not been bound by any close or peculiar tie to the fallen dynasty, he was attached to it in a merely constitutional point of view; but his great intelligence had, from the first, appreciated the extent of the danger to liberty caused by the revolution.
The danger he considered immeasurable, and the consequent mischief the greatest possible. To avert, in the midst of so much irremediable misery and ruin, this last and greatest danger, seemed to be all that remained for him to attempt. Therefore, after an attentive study of the events passing before him, after considering the raging passions, the divisions of party in the country, divisions which were faithfully represented in the assembly, he became, whether rightly or wrongly, convinced of two things; first, that the only and, perhaps, the last chance of liberty for France, lay in the establishment of the republic; second, that every attempt to prevent its success would end in the ruin of the republic in favour of the power of a single person. In so judging he was assuredly not carried away by enthusiasm. His instinct and his reason were equally offended by the republic of 1848; the violent and surreptitious origin of the revolution,—its authors,—the licentious theories, and even the absurd phraseology that it had brought forth, were thoroughly repugnant to his nature, and would have held him aloof from the republic, had it not been for the extent of the evil from which he thought that the establishment of the republic alone could save France. Tocqueville would have done anything to obviate it, because he felt that its natural consequence would be to drive France into an abyss of misery; but now that the republic was established, he saw safety in its maintenance. Was he wrong? Was the permanence of the republic a chimera? One must beware of judging everything by the result. Many declared the republic to be impossible, who proclaimed still more impossible the permanence of absolute power. However that may be, it is essential to make known the convictions of Tocqueville, as they only can furnish the key to his conduct at this important epoch of recent history. These convictions regulated all his acts; and it is remarkable, that in the midst of the most perplexing circumstances, Tocqueville had not one instant of hesitation or weakness, but appeared invariably more energetic and more resolute than ever.
The department of La Manche sent Tocqueville as its representative to the constituent assembly convoked for the 4th of May. Placed on the committee for the formation of a constitution, Tocqueville was penetrated with the sense of its importance; he applied himself conscientiously to the ungrateful task imposed on the committee—a task which, considering that it was executed between the 15th of May and the 24th of June, could not but be full of imperfections, some of which would, perhaps, have been avoided had the ideas which Tocqueville in vain tried to introduce been adopted. To quote a single example: Tocqueville proposed that, instead of being elected by the direct suffrage of the people, the President of the republic should, as in the United States, be elected by a limited number of electors, themselves chosen by universal suffrage. Instead of one Assembly, he preferred a representation consisting of two Chambers. But although his opinions did not prevail, he continued to give his most cordial and earnest assistance to the labours of the committee; for he was convinced, that in such times the immediate success of a constitution depends less on the principles which it puts forth, than on the men who have to carry them out. Animated by these sentiments, and with the same singleness of purpose, Tocqueville supported General Cavaignac. He not merely gave to him his vote, but also his strongest moral support, though without illusion as to the difficulties of his canvass and the decreasing chances of his success. The sight of this gradual decline, the deep sense of the calamities towards which France was rapidly drifting, excited Tocqueville’s patriotic regret. His opinions at that time live probably in the memory of many; but they are, perhaps, nowhere better recorded than in his correspondence with the author of this Memoir, who was at that period in London, and to whom he despatched a daily report of the national assembly, the state of the political thermometer, and his own private impressions. At some later date this extremely curious correspondence may be published; now it is impossible. It paints with wonderful accuracy the deformities of the times—the defects both personal and material, as well as the grief which they produced in Tocqueville.
In the month of October, 1848, two of his political friends, M. M. Dufaure and Vivien, whose wishes and fears were similar to his, having been admitted to share the councils of General Cavaignac, Tocqueville was appointed to represent France as plenipotentiary at the conference of Brussels, the object of which was the mediation of France and England between Austria and Sardinia. Although this mediation had been formally accepted by Austria, Tocqueville was already convinced, from the turn of events both in that country and in France, that there was a great chance that the conference would never take place. He accepted, however, lest, by refusing their pressing solicitations, he should appear to withhold his co-operation from his friends, whom he feared to damage in proportion to his sense of the importance and the difficulty of their undertaking. Finally, when, six months after the presidential election of the 10th December, 1848, renewed disturbances brought back the fear of anarchy, and the necessity was felt of maintaining order under the standard of the republic and of the constitution, the President made an appeal to the men best known for their attachment to the constitution, Tocqueville, who had just been elected a member of the legislative assembly, accepted the portfolio of foreign affairs; and, with his friends MM. Dufaure and Lanjuinais, became part of the ministry of M. Odilon Barrot, which lasted till the manifesto of the 31st of October in the same year. At the moment when this ministry was formed, Tocqueville was travelling with his wife on the Rhine; his friends sent for him, and he reached Paris only just in time to assume his duties.
The short period of his ministry of foreign affairs would alone have sufficed to prove the rare practical capacity for business of Tocqueville; who, in the space of two months, had to settle two great questions, that of Rome, and that of the Hungarian refugees whose extradition was demanded from the Sublime Porte by Austria and Russia.
All who at that time observed Tocqueville, admired the clearness of his views, and the uprightness and firmness of his acts. It has seldom happened to a minister to leave, in so short a time, such brilliant and yet durable traces of his administration, not only at home, but in foreign governments. All the diplomatic agents of France at that time, among whom Tocqueville by his influence had placed two of his personal friends, General Lamoricière at the court of St. Petersburgh, and M. Gustave de Beaumont, at that of Vienna, can bear witness to this fact. From the first they were struck by the elevated and dignified tone of his despatches. Tocqueville, indeed, charmed all who came in contact with him, by the attraction of his moral and intellectual qualities; and when the act of the 31st of October separated him from the head of the government, the President, who as well as others had been captivated, endeavoured to attach him to his person, projects, and designs. Without being insensible to these proofs of esteem, the resolution of Tocqueville could not be shaken. He insisted on the preservation of the republic, and all was tending towards the empire, or rather the empire was set up. The Legislative Assembly dragged on, rather than lived for two years; like a strong man, who though mortally wounded, can neither recover nor die. Tocqueville sat in it to the end, with the thorough disgust and bitter regret caused by the spectacle of its long agony. He had not, however, to reproach himself with a moment’s weakness or desertion. To the end he trod firmly and uprightly the path which he had traced for himself. When the question of a revision of the constitution was agitated in extremis in the Assembly; without deceiving himself as to the character of the petitions which demanded this revision, but convinced that the power of the President must be renewed, and that if anything could diminish the fatal effect of this popular coup d’état, it would be to render it beforehand constitutional; he voted for the revision, and speaking in the name of the committee, he stated his motives in a report which was his last and one of his most remarkable parliamentary labours. A few days later the parliament had ceased to exist.
Tocqueville, fatigued by his ministerial duties, and with health much impaired, had a short time previously quitted France for a warmer climate: he went to seek rest and sunshine in the neighbourhood of Naples, at Sorrento, where he passed the winter, and where he would have had only too good a right to prolong his stay. But, in spite of the charms and the salutary effects of his residence in this delightful retreat, to which the society of a few friends* added the advantages of an intimate and chosen society, Tocqueville instantly quitted it to return to Paris when he saw the storm gather and ready to burst over the Assembly of which he was a member. He chose to be at his post, and to take his share of the danger in the struggle which he hoped would ensue; and he was present on the 2d of December, 1851. He was at the meeting of the tenth arrondissement; he approved and signed all its resolutions; and was sent with two hundred of his colleagues to the barracks on the Quai d’Orsay; from whence, on the night of the 2d of December, they were transferred to Vincennes. Here ends the political life of Tocqueville, together with that of liberty in France.*
The most striking features in Tocqueville’s political character are firmness combined with moderation; and moral greatness and dignity combined with ambition. In revolutionary times the men who are not violent are often accused of weakness. It is true that Tocqueville had none of the revolutionary energy, produced more by temper than by conviction, which proceeds by fits and starts, and is subject to sudden reaction.
Tocqueville was not violent; but nothing could surpass the strength and constancy with which he held to his opinions. Intrenched behind the line marked out by his reason, and fortified by his conscience, he was invincible; he never quitted it for an instant, either to obtain power or to keep it. And yet the ambition that, as we have seen, fired his mind on his entrance into public life was not extinguished; it continued equally vivid, but it was always of that nobler kind which, counting as nothing empty honour and material advantages, sees in power only a means of accomplishing, if not great things, at least things useful to his country.
Convinced that in a free nation power should always vest in the political party which has the majority, and that there can be neither greatness nor dignity in a government unless the party in power makes known its principles, and remains faithful to them, he did not feel, he could not even understand, ambition except within these limits. It is indeed the lot of all men, whose public ambition is of this kind, to attain office rarely, and still more rarely to keep it. But greatness does not consist in the mere possession of power; and the statesman who desires that his memory may be honoured must, above all, preserve in the conduct of public affairs his personal dignity and self-respect.
Although Tocqueville did not long retain what is called power, he enjoyed a much nobler and more lasting influence than is obtained by the daily management of affairs,—the moral influence exercised by his ideas. By them he exercised, and still exercises, great political influence over his own age. His opinions formed a school. He is everywhere quoted and considered as an authority, abroad as well as at home. It was, especially, this powerful moral influence that made Tocqueville a politician and a statesman.
[*]M. Ampère, and Mr. Senior, who, with his family, arrived in January.
[*]An interesting account of these events was written by M. de Tocqueville, and published in the Times of the 11th of December, 1851. It will be found in the second volume of this work.—Tr.