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FRANCE BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. - 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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FRANCE BEFORE THE REVOLUTION.
The following pages contain the article contributed by M. de Tocqueville to the Westminster Review, of April, 1836, and translated by Mr. J. S. Mill. It is inserted in this place as a preface to the two chapters on the French Revolution, which unhappily are all that we at present possess.
On comparing this Essay with the celebrated work on the Ancien Régime, published by M. de Tocqueville twenty years afterwards, it will be found to contain fewer historical details and more general views. The writer had not then passed whole years among the provincial archives of France. He drew his inferences rather from consciousness than from observation, rather from his wonderful power of reflection, from the sagacity with which he conjectured what, under certain circumstances, would be the thoughts and feelings and actions of men, than from a laborious investigation of the evidences as to what they actually felt, and thought. That investigation he afterwards made, and we have its results in his Ancien Régime. They confirm most remarkably the theories of this Essay. But they are far from superseding it. I am inclined to think that to an English reader, who cares little for the details of the ancien régime, and much for its results, this Essay will be, if possible, more instructive than the book into which many years afterwards it was expanded. I cannot conclude without expressing my gratitude to Mr. Mill for the permission which he kindly gave me to make use of his admirable translation.—Tr.
The ideas and feelings of every age are connected with those of the age that preceded it, by invisible but almost omnipotent ties. One generation may anathematize the preceding generations, but it is far easier to combat than to avoid resembling them. It is impossible, therefore, to describe a nation at any given epoch, without stating what it was half a century before. This is especially necessary when the question relates to a people who, for the last fifty years, have been in an almost continual state of revolution. Foreigners who hear this people spoken of, and who have not followed with an attentive eye the successive transformations which it has experienced, only know that it has undergone great changes, but are ignorant what portions of its ancient state have been abandoned, and what have been preserved, in the midst of such prolonged vicissitudes.
It is proposed in this article to give some explanation of the state of France previously to the great Revolution of 1789, for want of which her present condition would be difficult to comprehend.
Towards the close of the ancient monarchy, the Church of France presented a spectacle analogous in some respects to that which the Established Church of England offers at the present day.
Louis XIV, who had destroyed all powerful individual existences, and annihilated or humbled all corporate bodies, had left to the clergy alone the outward marks of independence. The clergy had preserved their annual assemblies, in which they taxed themselves; they possessed a considerable portion of the landed property of the kingdom; and they thrust themselves, in a thousand different ways, into the public administration. Without abandoning their adherence to the principal dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, the French clergy had nevertheless assumed a firm and almost a hostile attitude towards the papal throne.
In detaching the French priesthood from their spiritual chief, leaving them at the same time riches and power, Louis had merely followed the despotic tendency which is perceptible in every act of his reign. He knew that he should ever be the master of the clergy, whose chiefs he himself chose; and he believed it to be his interest that the clergy should be strong, in order that they might aid him in ruling over the minds of the people, and that they might resist with him the encroachments of the popes.
The Church of France, under Louis XIV, was both a political and a religious institution. In the interval between the death of this prince and the French Revolution, the religious faith of the people having been gradually weakened, the priest and the people gradually became strangers to one another. This change was produced by causes which it would take too much time to enumerate. At the end of the eighteenth century the French clergy still possessed their vast wealth—still mixed themselves up in all the affairs of state; but the spirit of the population was becoming everywhere estranged from them, and the Church had now become much more a political than a religious institution.
It will perhaps be not without some difficulty that we shall convey to the English reader of the present day a clear conception of the old noblesse of France. The English language has no word which expresses exactly the old French idea of a noblesse. The word “nobility” expresses more, the word “gentry” less. Neither is the word “aristocracy” one which can be applied to the case without explanation. By aristocracy, taking the word in its ordinary sense, is commonly understood the aggregate of the higher classes. The French noblesse was an aristocratic body, but we should be wrong in saying that it alone formed the aristocracy of the country, for by its side were to be found classes as enlightened, as wealthy, and almost as influential as itself. The French noblesse, therefore, was to aristocracy as it is understood in England, what the species is to the genus; it formed a caste, and not the entire aristocracy. In this respect it resembled the noblesse of all the nations on the continent. Not that a man could not be made noble in France by the purchase of certain offices, or by the prince’s will; but the fact of being ennobled, though it removed him from the ranks of the tiers-état, did not, properly speaking, introduce him into those of the noblesse. The noble of recent date halted, as it were, on the confines of the two orders; somewhat above the one, but below the other. He perceived afar the promised land which his posterity alone could enter. Birth, therefore, was in reality the only source whence the noblesse sprung. Men were born noble—they did not become so.
About 20,000 families* spread over the surface of the kingdom composed this great corporation. These families recognised among themselves a species of theoretic equality, founded on their common privilege of birth. “I am,” said Henry IV, “but the first nobleman in my kingdom.”† This expression is an indication of the spirit which still reigned among the French noblesse towards the close of the eighteenth century.‡ There existed, nevertheless, great differences of condition among the nobles. Some still possessed large landed estates, others had scarcely the means of subsistence in their paternal manor-house. Some passed the greater part of their time at court, others proudly cherished, at the extremity of their province, a hereditary obscurity. To some, custom opened the road to the highest dignities of the state, whilst others, after having attained the utmost limit of their hopes, a moderate rank in the army, returned peaceably to their homes, to quit them no more.
To depict faithfully, therefore, the order of the noblesse, it would have been necessary to resort to numerous classifications. The noblesse d’épée must have been distinguished from the noblesse de robe—the noble of the court from the noble of the provinces—the ancient from the modern noblesse. In this smaller society were almost as many shades and distinctions, as in the general society of which it was but a section. A certain community of spirit nevertheless existed among all the members of this great body. They agreed in obeying certain fixed rules, in governing themselves by certain invariable usages, and in holding some ideas which were common to them all.
The French noblesse, having originated, like all the other feudal aristocracies, in conquest, had, like them, and even in a still greater degree, enjoyed enormous privileges. It had monopolized almost all the intelligence and wealth of society. It had possessed all the land, and been master of the inhabitants.
But at the close of the eighteenth century, the French noblesse presented but a shadow of its former self. It had lost its influence over both the prince and the people. The king still chose from its ranks the principal officers of Government, but in this he rather followed instinctively an ancient custom, than recognised an acquired right. It was long since any nobles had existed who had power to excite the fears of the monarch, and extort from him a share in the Government. Upon the people the influence of the noblesse was still less. Between a king and a body of nobles there is a natural affinity, which draws them, even unconsciously, towards each other: but a union of the aristocracy and the people is not in the ordinary course of events; only by sustained efforts can it be brought about and maintained.
In truth, there are but two modes by which an aristocracy can maintain its influence over the people; by governing them, or by uniting with them for the purpose of checking the Government. The nobles must either remain the people’s masters, or must become their leaders.
The French noblesse was far from placing itself at the head of the other classes in resistance to the abuses of the royal power; on the contrary, it was the kings who formerly united themselves, first with the people to struggle against the tyranny of the nobles, and afterwards with the nobles to maintain the people in obedience.
On the other hand, the noblesse had long ceased to take an active part in the details of Government. The general government of the State was usually in the hands of nobles; they commanded the armies, and filled the chief offices in the ministry and about the courts; but they took no share in the detailed business of administration—in that part of the public business which comes into immediate contact with the people. Shut up in his château, unknown to the prince, a stranger to the surrounding population, the noble of France remained immoveable in the midst of the daily movement of society. Around him were the king’s officers, who administered justice, levied taxes, maintained order, and did whatever was done for the well-being or the guidance of the people. The irksomeness of their obscure leisure induced those nobles who still retained large estates to repair to Paris, and live at the court, the only place which could supply any aliment to their ambition. The lesser nobles, confined to the provinces by narrow circumstances, led an idle, useless, and restless existence. Those, therefore, of the nobles, who in default of political power might by their wealth have acquired some influence over the people, voluntarily withdrew themselves from them; whilst those who were compelled to live among them, only displayed before their eyes the uselessness and inconvenience of an institution of which they were the only visible representatives.
In thus abandoning to others the details of the public administration, and aspiring only to the more important offices of the State, the French noblesse had shown that they were more attached to the semblance of power than to power itself. The effect which the central government produces on the interests of individuals is remote and comparatively obscure. The foreign policy of the State, and its general system of laws, exercise chiefly an indirect, and often not very obvious, influence on the welfare of each citizen. The local administration, on the other hand, meets them daily and hourly; it incessantly touches them in their most sensitive points; it operates upon every one of those smaller interests of which the great interest we take in life is made up; it is the principal object both of the hopes and fears of the people at large; it connects itself with them by a thousand invisible ties, which bind them, and draw them on, without their being aware. It is in governing the village that an aristocracy lays the foundation of the power which afterwards serves it to control the State.
Fortunately for the aristocracies which still exist, the power which seeks to destroy them knows almost as little as themselves the secret of their influence. For our part, were we plotting the destruction of some great aristocratic power firmly established in any country, our struggle would not be to drive its representatives from around the throne; we should be in no haste to attack the aristocracy in its most dazzling privileges, nor should we begin by contesting even its great legislative functions; we would endeavour to remove it to a distance from the dwelling of the poor—to deprive it of influence over the daily interests of the citizens. We would rather permit it to participate in making the general laws of the state, than to regulate the police of a single city. We should, with less regret, abandon to its control the direction of the greater affairs of society, than that of the smaller. Leaving to it all the more conspicuous marks of its grandeur, we would deprive it of the people’s attachment, the true source of political power.
The French nobles had preserved a certain number of exclusive rights, which distinguished them from, and raised them above, the rest of the citizens; but it was easy to discover that among the privileges of their fathers, the French noblesse had only retained those which make aristocracies hated, and not those which cause them to be respected or beloved.
The nobles enjoyed the exclusive right of furnishing officers to the army. This would, doubtless, have been an important privilege, if the nobles had preserved a certain degree of individual importance, or a powerful esprit de corps. But as they had no longer either the one or the other, they were in the army but what they were everywhere else, passive instruments in the hands of the monarch. To him alone they looked for advancement and favour, and whether on the field of battle or at the court, to please him was their sole ambition. The privilege, therefore, which we have just mentioned, whilst it was advantageous to the pecuniary interests of noble families, was of no service to the noblesse as an order in the state. In an essentially warlike nation, where military glory has ever been considered as the most important of all possessions, the privilege in question excited against those who enjoyed it violent hatred and implacable jealousy: instead of placing the soldiery at their disposal, it made the soldier the natural enemy of the noble.
The nobles were exempt from some of the taxes, and they levied from the inhabitants of their domains, under divers names, a great number of annual contributions. These rights did not increase to any great extent the wealth of the nobles, but they erected the order of nobility into an object of general hatred and envy.
The most dangerous of all privileges, to those who enjoy them, are pecuniary privileges. Every one can appreciate them at a glance, and sees clearly how much he is injured by them. The sums which they produce furnish an exact standard by which the unprivileged are able to measure the hatred which the privilege ought to excite. There are but a limited number of men who crave after honours, or who aspire to govern the State, but there are few who do not desire to be as rich as they can. Many persons care but little to know who rules over them, but there are none who are indifferent to what affects their private fortunes. The privileges, therefore, which confer pecuniary profit, are at once less valuable and more dangerous to the possessor than those which confer power. The French nobles, by preserving the former in preference to the latter, had maintained that feature of inequality of condition which is offensive, and renounced that which is serviceable. They oppressed and impoverished the people, but did not rule over them. They stood in the midst of the people as strangers favoured by the prince, rather than as their leaders and chiefs. Having nothing to bestow, they did not act upon the people’s affections through their hopes; while, being limited in their exactions by certain rules, which in all cases were previously fixed, they excited hatred, but did not produce fear.
Independently of these lucrative privileges, the French noblesse had retained a vast number of purely honorary distinctions, such as titles, order of precedence in public, and the privilege of adopting a certain costume, and wearing certain arms. Some of these privileges they had formerly enjoyed as the natural adjuncts of their power—the others had arisen since the weakening of that power, and as a compensation for its loss; both were alike incapable of being of the slightest service, and might be productive of danger.
When once the reality of power has been abandoned, to wish to retain its semblance is to play a dangerous game. The outward aspect of vigour may sometimes sustain an enfeebled body, but more frequently serves to complete its downfal. Those who possess the appearance of power, without its substance, seem, to the general eye, of sufficient consequence to be hated, while they are no longer capable of protecting themselves against the hatred they excite. Those, therefore, whose power is in its infancy, and those with whom it is in its decline, should rather shun all honorary privileges than seek them. It is only a power firmly established, and which has attained to maturity, that can safely permit itself the use of them.
All that we have said of laws and customs may be extended to opinions.
The modern nobles had abandoned most of the ideas of their ancestors, but there were still several of a very hurtful character to which they were obstinately attached. At the head of these must be placed the prejudice which interdicted to persons of noble birth the pursuits of commercial industry.
This prejudice had been generated during the middle ages, when the possession of the land and the government of its inhabitants were one and the same thing. In those ages the idea of landed property was identified with that of power and greatness: the idea of mere moveable property, on the contrary, called up the idea of inferiority and weakness. Although the possession of land afterwards ceased to confer power in the State, and the other kinds of wealth had prodigiously increased, and acquired an entirely new importance, the feelings of the noble class had remained unchanged; the prejudice had survived the causes which gave birth to it.
The consequence of this was that the families of the noblesse, while they were liable in common with others to the chances of ruin, were precluded from the ordinary means of increasing their fortunes. The noblesse, therefore, taken as a body, was gradually becoming impoverished: and thus, after having abandoned the direct road to power, they remained equally strangers to the by-roads which might possibly conduct to it.
Not only were the nobles precluded from increasing or repairing their own fortunes by commerce and industry, but custom forbade them even to appropriate by marriage wealth so acquired. A nobleman would have deemed himself degraded by an alliance with the daugh-of a rich roturier. Nevertheless such unions were not uncommon among them; for their fortunes decreased more rapidly than their desires. These plebeian alliances, while they enriched certain members of the noblesse, put the finishing stroke to the ruin of that influence over opinion, which was the only power the body, as a body, retained.
We must consider what are men’s motives, before we applaud them for having elevated themselves above common prejudices. To judge of their conduct, we must place ourselves at their own point of view, and not at the point of view of abstract truth. To run counter to a common opinion because we believe it to be false, is noble and virtuous; but to despise a prejudice merely because it is inconvenient to ourselves, is nearly as dangerous to morality as to abandon a true principle for the same reason. The nobles were wrong in the first place, when they believed themselves degraded by marrying the daughters of roturiers. They were still more wrong in the second place, by marrying them under that persuasion.
In the eighteenth century the feudal laws relative to entails were still in vigour, but these laws had little effect in keeping together the fortunes of the nobles.
We suspect that the influence which such laws can exercise is frequently exaggerated. To produce important consequences, a concurrence of circumstances is required, which those laws do not produce, and which depends on quite other causes.
When the nobles are not tormented by the desire of enriching themselves, and when the other classes of the nation are tolerably content with the lot which Providence has assigned to them, the law of entail being then in complete accordance with the tendency of opinions and habits, the result of the whole is a universal slumber and immobility. Commoners having scarcely a greater chance of acquiring wealth than the nobles, and the nobles having no chance of losing theirs, all the advantage remains with the latter, and each generation of nobles maintains without difficulty the rank which the preceding generation occupied.
But in a nation where all except the nobles are seeking to enrich themselves, the territorial possessions of the noblesse become a sort of prize which all the other classes endeavour to catch at. The ignorance of the nobles, their passions, their foibles, all are put in requisition to draw into the general current of circulation the mass of landed property which they possess: and in a short time the noblesse themselves seldom fail to assist in the work.
The commons having only the privilege of wealth to oppose to the privileges of all kinds which their rivals enjoy, do not fail to display their opulence with every kind of ostentation. This excites the emulation of the nobles, who desire to imitate their splendour without having the same means to supply it. Embarrassment soon manifests itself in the fortunes of the nobles; their incomes become inadequate to their wants; and they themselves, ultimately feeling inconvenienced by the very laws which are made to keep them rich and powerful, seek by every means in their power to elude those laws. We will not positively assert, that even then, entails do not somewhat retard the ruin of the nobles; but we believe that they cannot prevent it. There is something more powerful than the constant operation of the laws in one direction; it is, the constant operation of human passions in the contrary direction.
At the breaking out of the French Revolution, the laws of France still assigned to the eldest son of a noble almost all the family estates. He was, in his turn, compelled to transmit them to his descendants unimpaired.
Nevertheless, many domains of feudal origin had already passed from the hands of the noblesse, and many others had been divided.*
Not only did the noblesse comprise in its ranks very rich and very poor men—a circumstance which by no means conflicts with the notion of an order of noblesse—but it included very many persons who were neither rich nor poor, but possessed moderate fortunes. This state of things already savoured more of democracy than of aristocracy; and if the composition of the French noblesse had been closely examined, it would have been found to be in reality a sort of democratic body, clothed in relation to all other classes with the privileges of an aristocracy.
But the danger which menaced the nobles arose much more from what was passing around them, than from what occurred within their own circle.
At the same time that the wealth of the French noblesse was dwindling, and their political and social influence fading away, another class of the nation was rapidly acquiring monied wealth, and even coming into contact with the government. The noblesse was thus losing ground in two ways. It was becoming both positively and relatively weaker. The new and encroaching class, which seemed to be elevating itself on the ruins of the other, had received the name of tiers état.
As it is difficult to make Englishmen comprehend the nature of the French noblesse, so it is by no means easy to explain to them what was understood by tiers-état.
At the first glance it might be thought that in France the tiers-état was composed of the middle class, and stood between the aristocracy and the people. But this was not the case. The tiers-état included, it is true, the middle classes, but it also comprised elements which were naturally foreign to these classes. The richest merchant, the most opulent banker, the most skilful manufacturer, the man of letters, the man of science, might form part of the tiers-état, as well as the small farmer, the shopkeeper, and the peasant who tilled the ground. Every man, in short, who was neither a priest nor a noble belonged to the tiers-état. It included rich and poor, the ignorant and the instructed. The tiers-état had thus within itself an aristocracy of its own. It contained within itself all the elements of a people; or rather it formed of itself a complete people, which co-existed with the privileged order, but which was perfectly capable of existing by itself, apart from them. It had opinions, prejudices, and a national spirit of its own. This is clearly discoverable in the cahiers drawn up in 1789, by the order of the tiers-état, to serve as instructions to its deputies. The tiers-état were almost as much beset with the fear of being mixed up with the noblesse, as the latter could have been of being confounded with them. They complained of the custom of ennobling by purchase, which permitted some of their body to penetrate into the ranks of the nobles. At the elections which preceded the assembling of the States-general, Lavoisier, the celebrated chemist, having wished to vote among the tiers-état, was rejected from the electoral college, on the ground that, having purchased an office which conferred nobility, he had forfeited the right of voting with roturiers.
Thus the tiers-état and the noblesse were intermixed on the same soil; but they formed, as it were, two distinct nations, which, though living under the same laws, remained strangers to each other. But of these two nations the one was incessantly recruiting its strength, the other was losing something every day, and never regaining anything.
The creation of this new people in the midst of the French nation threatened the very existence of the noblesse. The state of isolation in which the nobles lived was a still greater source of danger to them.
This complete division between the tiers-état and the nobles not only accelerated the fall of the noblesse, but threatened to leave in France no aristocracy whatever.
It is not by chance that aristocracies arise and maintain themselves. Like all other phenomena, they are subject to fixed laws, which it is not, perhaps, impossible to discover.
There exists among mankind, in whatsoever form of society they live, and independently of the laws which they have made for their own government, a certain amount of real or conventional advantages, which, from their nature, can only be possessed by a small number. At the head of these may be placed birth, wealth, and knowledge. It would be impossible to conceive any social state in which all the citizens, without exception, should be noble, highly intellectual, or rich. These three advantages differ considerably from one another, but they agree in this, that they are always the lot of a few, and give, consequently, to those who possess them, tastes and ideas of a more or less peculiar or exclusive kind. They therefore form so many aristocratic elements, which, whether separated or united in the same hands, are to be found amongst every people and at every period of history.
When the governing power is shared by all those who possess any of these exclusive advantages, the result is a stable and powerful aristocracy.
During the eighteenth century the French noblesse possessed within itself a portion only of the natural elements of an aristocracy. Some of those elements remained with the classes beyond their pale.
In isolating themselves from the aristocracy of wealth, and from that of intellect, the nobles believed they were remaining faithful to the example of their fathers. They did not remark, that in imitating the conduct they were missing the aim of their ancestors. In the middle age, it is true, birth was the principal source of all social advantages; but in the middle age the nobles were also the rich, and had called into alliance with them the priests, who were the instructed. Society yielded, and could not but yield, to these two classes of men a complete obedience.
But in the eighteenth century many of the wealthy class were not noble, and many of the nobles were no longer rich. The same might be said in respect to intelligence. The tiers-état formed one member of what may be called the natural aristocracy, separated from the main body; a member, which could not fail to weaken it, even by withholding its support, and was sure to destroy it by declaring war against it.
The exclusive spirit of the nobles tended not only to detach from the general cause of the aristocracy the chiefs of the tiers-état, but also all those who hoped one day to become such.
The greater number of aristocracies have perished, not because they established political and social inequality, but because they insisted upon maintaining it in favour of certain individuals, and to the detriment of certain others. What mankind detest is not so much inequality itself, as a particular kind of inequality. Neither must it be thought that an aristocracy commonly perishes by the excess of its privileges. On the contrary, it may happen that the greatness of those privileges sustains it. If every one may hope one day to enter into the exalted body, the extent of the privileges of that body is often the very thing which renders it dear to those who have not yet become members of it. In this manner the very vices of the institution sometimes constitute its strength. Let it not be said that each man’s chances are small. This is of little consequence, where the object to be attained is brilliant. What excites human desires is much less the certainty of moderate, than the possibility of splendid, success. Increase the greatness of the object to be attained, and you may without fear diminish the probabilities of obtaining it.
In a country where it is not impossible that a poor man may come to the highest offices of the State, it is much easier to continue excluding the poor from any share of control over the government, than in those countries where all hope of rising to a higher rank is denied them. The idea of the imaginary grandeur to which he may one day be called, places itself continually between the poor man and the contemplation of his real miseries. It is a game of chance, where the enormous possible gain lays hold of the mind in spite of the almost certainty of loss. He is charmed with aristocracy as with the lottery.
The division which existed in France between the different aristocratic elements, established in the aristocracy itself a sort of intestine war, by which democracy alone was destined to profit. Rejected by the noblesse, the principal members of the tiers-état were obliged, in combating those adversaries, to arm themselves with principles convenient for their immediate purpose, but ultimately dangerous to themselves, even by reason of their efficacy. The tiers-état was one portion of the aristocracy which had revolted against the rest; and was obliged to profess the general principle of equality, as a means of overthrowing the particular barrier which was opposed to themselves.
Even within the pale of the noblesse, inequality was daily attacked; if not in its principle, at least in some one or other of its numerous applications. The military nobles accused the noblesse de robe of arrogance, and the latter complained of the preponderance accorded to the former. The court noble affected to rally the rural nobles upon their petty seignorial rights, and the latter were annoyed at the favour bestowed upon the courtiers. The ancient noble contemned the recently ennobled, who in turn envied the honours of the other. All these recriminations and jealousies between the different sections of the privileged class were extremely injurious to the general cause of privileges.
The people, disinterested spectators of the quarrels of their chiefs, adopted only as much of their language and doctrines as suited them. The idea thus spread itself by degrees through the nation, that equality alone was conformable to the natural order of things, and was the foundation on which all well-regulated society should be built. These theories found their way into the minds of the nobles themselves, who, though still in the full enjoyment of their privileges, began to look upon the possession of them as a lucky accident, rather than as a right entitled to respect.
Custom, in general, follows much more closely than law, the changes of opinion. The aristocratic principle still triumphed in political institutions; but manners had already become democratic, and a thousand different ties had established themselves between men whom their social position would naturally have separated.
A circumstance which favoured singularly this mixture of classes in society, was the position gradually acquired by the literary class.
In a nation where wealth is the sole, or even the principal foundation of aristocracy, money, which in all society is the means of pleasure, confers power also. Endowed with these two advantages, it succeeds in attracting towards itself the whole imagination of man; and ends by becoming, we may almost say, the only distinction which is sought.
In such a country literature is little cultivated, and literary merit therefore scarcely attracts the attention of the public. But in the nations where the aristocracy of birth predominates, the same universal impulse towards the acquisition of wealth does not exist. The human mind, not being driven in one directon by a single passion, abandons itself to the natural variety of its inclinations. If such nations are highly civilized, a large number of citizens are to be met with who prize mental enjoyments, and honour those who are capable of bestowing them. Many ambitious men, who despise wealth, and whose plebeian origin shuts them out from participation in public affairs, take refuge in the study of letters, and seek literary glory, the only kind that is open to them. They thus occupy, beyond the limits of politics, a brilliant position, which is seldom disputed with them.
In those countries where money is the source of power, the importance of a man is in proportion to the wealth he possesses; and wealth being liable to be acquired or lost at any given moment, the members of the aristocracy are perpetually beset by the fear of falling from their rank, or of seeing other citizens rise to a participation in their privileges. The constant changeableness which thus prevails in the political world, throws their minds into a sort of permanent agitation. Even their enjoyment of their fortune is not untroubled; they seize with haste the advantages which riches can bring. They are incessantly contemplating their position with an unquiet eye, to discover if they have not lost ground. On all other persons they cast looks of jealousy and fear, to find out whether anything is changed around them; and all that is elevating itself ends by giving them umbrage.
Aristocracies founded solely on birth display much less inquietude at the sight of anything illustrious without their circle; because they are possessed of an advantage which from its nature can neither be divided nor lost. A person may become rich, but it is necessary to be born noble.
The French noblesse had at all times held out their hands to literary men, and liked to associate with them; but this was especially the case in the eighteenth century, a period of leisure, when men of rank found themselves almost as much relieved from the cares of government as the roturiers themselves, and when the spread of intelligence had communicated to all the refined taste of literary pleasures. Under Louis XIV. the nobles were accustomed to honour and protect writers, but did not in reality mingle with them. The two were distinct classes, which often approached each other, but without being in any one instance confounded. Towards the close of the eighteenth century this was no longer the case. It was not that writers had been admitted to a share in the privileges of the aristocracy, nor that they had acquired an acknowledged position in the political world. The noblesse had not called them into its ranks; but many of the nobles had placed themselves in theirs. Literature had thus become a species of neutral ground, on which equality took refuge. The man of letters and the grand seigneur met there, without having sought and without fearing each other; and there, beyond the limits of the real world, reigned a species of imaginary democracy, where every individual was reduced to his natural advantages.
This state of things, so favourable to the rapid development of science and letters, was far from satisfying the men who cultivated these pursuits. They occupied, it is true, a brilliant position, but one which was ill defined, and perpetually contested. They shared in the pleasures of the great, and remained strangers to their rights. The nobles were sufficiently near to them to exhibit to them in detail all the advantages reserved for superiority of birth, but at the same time kept themselves sufficiently distant to prevent them from participating in or even tasting those advantages. Equality was thus placed before their eyes as a phantom, which fled before them in proportion as they approached to seize it. Accordingly the class of literary men thus favoured by the noblesse formed the most discontented portion of the tiers-état, and might be heard railing at privileges even in the palaces of the privileged.
This democratic tendency made itself manifest not only among the men of letters who frequented the society of the nobles, but also among those nobles who had become men of letters. The greater number of the latter warmly professed the political doctrines generally received among literary men: and, far from introducing the aristocratic spirit into literature, they transported what might be called the literary spirit into a portion of the noblesse.
Whilst the upper classes were gradually lowering themselves, the middle classes were gradually raising themselves, and an insensible movement was bringing them daily nearer to each other. Changes were going on in the distribution of property which were of a nature to facilitate, in a most singular manner, the growth and ultimate rule of democracy.
Almost all foreigners imagine that, in France, the division of landed property first commenced from the epoch when the laws relating to descent experienced a change, and when the greater part of the domains belonging to the nobles were confiscated. This is an error. At the moment when the revolution broke out, the lands, in a great number of provinces, were already considerably divided. The revolution did but extend to the whole territory what had previously been peculiar to some of its parts.
There are many causes which may tend to make landed property accumulate in few hands. The first of these is physical force. A conqueror seizes the lands of the conquered, and divides them among a small number of his partisans. In this way the ancient proprietors are deprived of their rights; but there are other cases in which they themselves voluntarily cede them.
Let us imagine a people amongst whom industrial and commercial enterprises are numerous and productive, and intelligence sufficiently developed to enable every person to perceive the advantages of fortune which may be acquired by trade and industry. Let us suppose that by a combination of causes—laws, manners, and ancient ideas—landed property is still amongst this people the principal source of consideration and power. The shortest and most rapid way of becoming enriched, would be to sell any land which may happen to be possessed, and employ the purchase-money in trade. The best means, on the other hand, of enjoying a fortune when acquired, would be to withdraw it from trade and invest it in land. Land in that case becomes an object of luxury—of ambition, and not of pecuniary speculation. The ends sought to be obtained by its acquisition are not harvests, but honours and power. This being the case, small landed properties will be offered for sale, but purchasers can be found only to throw them into larger; for the object, as well as the position, of the seller differs considerably from that of the buyer. The first, compared with the second, is a poor man going in quest of a competence; the other is a rich man, who has a large superfluity, and desires to apply it to his pleasures.
If to these general causes we add the particular operation of legal arrangements, which, while they give great facilities to the alienation of movable property, render the conveyance of land so difficult and onerous, that the rich, who alone have the desire to possess landed property, have also exclusively the means of acquiring it, we shall comprehend without difficulty that among such a people small landed properties must have a perpetual tendency to disappear, by being merged into a small number of large estates.
In proportion as industrial processes are perfected and multiplied, and as the diffusion of intelligence renders the poor man more aware of what these new instruments can do for him, the movement which we have just described naturally becomes more rapid. The prosperity of trade and industry will, more forcibly than ever, induce the small proprietor to sell; and this same cause will be constantly creating large masses of wealth, which will permit those who possess them to acquire immense domains. It would thus seem that the aggregation of the land of a country in large masses may be found at the two extremes of civilization; first, when men are in a state of semi-barbarism, and do not prize, indeed do not know, any other kind of wealth; and lastly, when they have become highly civilized, and have discovered a thousand other means of enriching themselves.
The picture which we have drawn may serve for a representation of England. No part of what we have said has ever been applicable to France.
It is extremely doubtful whether, at the conquest of France by the barbarians, the land was divided among the conquerors in a general and systematic manner, as was the case in England after the invasion of the Normans. The Franks were much less civilized than the Normans, and much less skilful in the art of systematizing their violence. The Frankish conquest moreover goes back to a much remoter epoch, and its effects became earlier weakened. There is reason to believe that in France many domains have never been subject to the feudal law; and those which were subject to it appear to have been of more moderate extent than in several others of the European States. The land consequently had never been very much agglomerated, or at least had for a long time ceased to be so.
We have seen that long before the French revolution landed property had come to be no longer the principal source of consideration and of power. During the same period industry and commerce had not made a very rapid progress; and the people, already sufficiently enlightened to conceive and desire a better condition than their own, had not yet acquired intelligence to disclose to them the most ready means of attaining it. The land, whilst it ceased to be an object of luxury to the rich, became an object, or, to say truth, the only object of industry to the poor. The former disposed of it, to facilitate and increase his pleasures; the other purchased it, to improve his circumstances. In this manner landed property was silently passing out of the hands of the nobles, and becoming divided among the people.
While the ancient proprietors of the soil were thus losing their estates, a multitude of commoners came gradually to acquire considerable property. But they only did so by great efforts, and by the aid of most imperfect processes. Thus the large territorial fortunes daily diminished, without much contemporaneous amassing of large capitals; and in the place of a few vast domains were created many small ones, the slow and painful fruit of labour and economy.
These changes in the distribution of landed property facilitated in a singular manner the great political revolution which was on the eve of taking place.
Whoever thinks to succeed in permanently establishing perfect equality in the political world, without introducing at the same time an approach to equality in society itself, appears to us to fall into a dangerous error. You cannot with impunity place men in a position in which they have alternately the feelings of strength and those of weakness—you cannot make them approach to complete equality on one point, and leave them to suffer extreme inequality on others, without their shortly aspiring to be strong, or becoming weak, on all points. But the most dangerous species of social inequality is that which results from the accumulation of landed property in large masses.
The possession of land gives to men a certain number of peculiar ideas and habits, which it is very important to take into account, and which the possession of movable wealth either does not produce, or produces in a minor degree.
Great territorial properties localize, if we may so speak, the influence of wealth; and forcing it to exert itself always in the same place and over the same persons, give it by that means a more intense and a more permanent character. Inequality of movable property creates rich individuals; inequality of landed property makes opulent families. It connects the wealthy with one another; it even unites different generations; and creates at length in the State a little community apart from the nation, which invariably comes to obtain a certain degree of power over the larger community in the midst of which it is placed. This is precisely the thing which is most hurtful to a democratic government.
There is nothing, on the contrary, more favourable to the reign of democracy than the division of the land into small independent properties. The possessor of a small monied fortune almost always depends more or less on the passions of others. He is compelled to bend either to the rules of an association or to the desires of an individual; he is exposed to every vicissitude in the commercial or industrial condition of his country; his existence is incessantly troubled by alternations of prosperity and distress; and it is rare that the fluctuation which rules his destiny does not introduce disorder into his ideas and instability into his tastes. The small landed proprietor, on the contrary, receives no impulse but from himself. His sphere is confined, but he moves within it in perfect liberty. His fortune increases slowly, but it is not subject to sudden risks. His mind is tranquil as his destiny; his tastes regular and peaceful as his labours; and not being absolutely in want of anybody’s assistance, he maintains the spirit of independence even in the midst of poverty.
One cannot doubt that this mental tranquillity of a large number of the citizens—this calmness and simplicity in their desires—this habit and relish of independence—favours in a singular manner the establishment and the maintenance of democratic institutions. For our part, should we see democratic institutions established among a people where great inequality of fortune prevailed, we should consider such institutions as a passing accident. We should think that both the owners of property and the labouring classes were in peril: the former exposed to the risk of losing their property by violence, the last of losing their independence. It is, therefore, strongly the interest of those nations who desire to arrive at a democratic government, that great inequality of fortune should not exist amongst them; but above all, that such inequality should not prevail in landed property.
In France, at the close of the eighteenth century, the principle of the inequality of rights and conditions still ruled despotically in political society. The French not only had an aristocracy, but a noblesse: that is to say, of all the systems of government of which inequality is the basis, they had preserved the most exclusive, and, if we may use the expression, the most intractable. A man must be noble before he could serve the State. Without nobility a man could scarcely approach the prince, who was forbidden all contact with roturiers by the puerilities of etiquette.
The details of the French institutions were in accordance with this principle. Entails, the right of primogeniture, the seignorial rights, the corporations—all the remains of the ancient feudal society still existed.
France had a state religion, the ministers of which were not only privileged, as they still are in some other aristocratic countries, but were alone tolerated by law. The Church, being, as in the middle ages, proprietor of a large portion of the country, naturally took a considerable share in the government.
In France, nevertheless, everything had for a long time been in progress towards democracy. He who, without resting in first appearances, had pictured to himself the state of moral impotence into which the clergy had fallen—the impoverishment and degradation of the noblesse—the wealth and intelligence of the tiersétat—the remarkable division of landed property which already existed—the great number of middling and the small number of large fortunes; who had recollected the theories professed at this epoch, the principles tacitly but almost universally admitted—he, we repeat, who had embraced in one view all these different objects, could not have failed to conclude that the France of that day, with her noblesse, her state religion, her aristocratic laws and customs, was already, taken altogether, the most really democratic nation of Europe: and that the French at the close of the eighteenth century, by their social state, their civil constitution, their ideas and their manners, had already outstripped greatly even those among the nations of the present day who tend most conspicuously towards democracy.
It is not only in the progress she was making towards equality of conditions, that France in the eighteenth century approximated to the France of our day. Many other features of the national physiognomy, which are usually looked upon as new, had already made their appearance.
It may perhaps be laid down as a general truth, that there is nothing more favourable to the establishment and durability of a system of municipal and provincial institutions independent of the general government, than a territorial aristocracy.
There are at every point of the territory occupied by such an aristocracy, one or more individuals who, being already placed above the rest by their birth and their riches, naturally assume, or upon whom is naturally conferred, the management of the affairs of their neighbourhood. In a society, on the contrary, where there exists great equality of conditions, the citizens, being so nearly equal among themselves, are naturally led to place the details of administration in the hands of the only power which stands forth conspicuously in an elevated situation above them all; namely, the central government of the state. And even when they may not be disposed thus to delegate the management of all their affairs to the central government, they are often compelled, by their individual weakness, and the difficulties which oppose their acting in concert, to suffer that government to usurp it.
It is true that when once a nation has admitted the principle of the sovereignty of the people—when intelligence has diffused itself—when the art of government has been brought to considerable perfection, and the evils of an administration too much centralized have been felt—then, indeed, the inhabitants of the country, and of the country towns, are often seen endeavouring to create a collective power among themselves for the direction of their local affairs. Sometimes even the supreme power itself, bending under the weight of its own prerogatives, endeavours to localize the business of government, and seeks, by combinations more or less skilful, to found artificially in all the different points of the country a kind of elective aristocracy. A democratic people tends towards centralization, as it were by instinct. It arrives at provincial institutions only by reflection.
But provincial self-government thus founded is always exposed to great hazards. In an aristocratic country, local authorities often subsist in spite of the hostility of the central power, and always without depending upon the interference of the latter to preserve them; but in a democratic country, the local government is often a creation of the central power, which suffers itself to be deprived of some of its privileges, or strips itself of them of its own accord.
This natural tendency of a democratic people to centralize the business of government becomes chiefly manifest, and has the most rapid growth, in an epoch of struggle and transition, when the aristocratic and the democratic principles are disputing with each other for ascendency.
The people, at the moment when they begin to feel their power, finding that the nobles direct all local affairs, become discontented with the provincial government, less as provincial than as aristocratic. The provincial power once torn from the hands of the aristocracy, there remains the question, in whose hands it shall be placed.
In France it was not only the central government, but the king in particular, who was exclusively vested with this power. This arises from causes which it may be well to explain.
We have already expressed our opinion that the democratic portion of society have a natural tendency to centralize the management of all their joint concerns: but we are far from contending that their inclination leads them to centralize it in the person of the king alone; that depends upon circumstances. When unfettered in their choice, the people will always prefer to confide the powers of administration to an assembly or a magistrate of their own choosing, rather than to a prince placed beyond their control. But this liberty is often wanting to them.
The democratic portion of society, at the time when it begins to feel its strength, and wishes to exert it, is as yet composed only of a multitude of individuals, equally weak and equally incapable of struggling single-handed against the great individual existences of the nobles. It has an instinctive desire to make itself felt in the government, without having the command of any of the instruments by which the government can be influenced. These numerous individuals, being also widely scattered and little accustomed to concert, feel instinctively the necessity for finding, somewhere out of themselves, and yet distinct from the aristocracy, an authority already constituted, round which they can rally, and, by combining as a whole, obtain that influence which is denied to them individually.
The popular power having as yet no constitutional organization, the only power already constituted, independently of the aristocracy, of which the people can avail themselves, is the prince. Between the prince and the nobles there is, no doubt, a natural affinity of inclination, but not a perfect identity; if their tastes and habits are alike, their interests are often contrary. The nations, therefore, which are in progress towards democracy commence ordinarily by increasing the royal power. The prince inspires less jealousy and less fear than the nobles; and, besides, in periods of revolution, it is something gained to change the depositaries of power, even if it be only taken from one enemy to be vested in another.
The great triumph of the English aristocracy has been their long success in making the democratic classes believe that the common enemy was the prince; thus constituting themselves the virtual representatives of the people, instead of remaining conspicuously their principal adversaries.
In general, it is only after having, by the assistance of the king, completely destroyed the power of the aristocracy, that a democratic people begins to think of rendering the king himself accountable for the power which it has allowed him to assume, and attempts either to render him dependent upon itself, or to remove the authority with which it has invested him into other and more dependent hands.
But, even when the democratic classes, after having succeeded in placing the powers of government in the hands of their own representatives, become desirous to divide those powers among several distinct authorities, this is often not easily effected: whether from the difficulty always found in withdrawing power from those who are once in possession of it, or from the uncertainty of knowing where best to place it.
The democratic classes can always find among themselves a sufficient number of able and enlightened men to compose a political assembly or a central Government; but it may happen that they do not find a sufficient number to be organized into provincial bodies. It may happen that the people of the provinces are not willing to allow themselves to be governed by the aristocracy, and are not yet in condition to form a Government for themselves. In the mean time, the powers of local administration can only be exercised by the central authority.
A considerable time, moreover, elapses before a people, just escaped from the hands of an aristocracy, feel the advantage, and experience the desire, of uncentralizing the management of their common concerns.
In the nations subject to an aristocracy, every individual belonging to the inferior classes has contracted, almost from his birth, the habit of looking in his immediate neighbourhood for the man who is the principal object of his jealousies, hopes, or fears. He is accustomed to consider the central Government as the natural umpire between himself and his local oppressor; and he contracts the habit of attributing to the first a great superiority of intelligence and wisdom. These two impressions often subsist when the causes which have given birth to them have perished.
Long after the aristocracy has been destroyed, the citizens still look with a kind of instinctive fear upon all who are elevated above them in their own neighbourhood; they are with difficulty induced to believe that skill in affairs, impartiality in rendering justice, or respect for the laws, can be found in an authority at their own doors. They are jealous of neighbours who have become their equals, because they have been jealous of neighbours who were their superiors; they distrust even men of their own choice; and, though they no longer consider the central Government as their shelter against the tyranny of the nobles, they still look upon it as a safeguard against their own mistakes. Thus, then, nations whose social condition is becoming democratic, almost always begin by concentrating all power in the prince; and when, afterwards, they acquire the necessary energy and force, they destroy the instrument,’ but continue to centralize the power in the hands of an authority which has now become dependent upon themselves.
When they become stronger, better organized, and more enlightened, they make a new effort, and, taking away from their general representatives some portion of the business of administration, they confide it to a secondary class of elective functionaries. Such appears to be the natural, the instinctive, and, we may add, the inevitable progress which those societies follow who, by their social condition, their ideas, and their manners, are travelling towards democracy.
In France, the extension of the royal power to embrace every part of the public administration regularly kept pace with the rise and progressive development of the democratic classes. In proportion as conditions became more equalized, the king penetrated more deeply and more habitually into the management of the local affairs; the towns and the provinces lost their privileges, or by degrees neglected to make use of them.
The people and the tiers-état assisted these changes with all their force, and even gave up, voluntarily, all their rights, where it so happened that they possessed any, in order to draw into a common ruin those of the nobles. The independent local authorities, and the power of the nobles, were therefore both weakened in the same manner and at the same time.
The kings of France had been singularly assisted in this tendency by the support which, during so many ages, had been afforded to them by the lawyers. In a country like France, where there existed privileged orders, a noblesse and a clergy, who had within themselves a large portion of the intelligence and almost all the riches of the country, the natural chiefs of the democracy were the lawyers. Until the French lawyers themselves aspired to govern in the name of the people, they laboured assiduously to ruin the noblesse for the aggrandizement of the throne. They lent themselves to the despotic purposes of the kings with singular readiness and with infinite art.
This is not peculiar to France; and we may be permitted to believe that, in serving the regal power, the French lawyers obeyed the instincts of their own position, as much as they consulted the interests of the class of which they found themselves accidentally at the head.
There exist, says Cuvier, natural analogies between all the parts of an organized body, by which, from the examination of a detached portion of any one of them, we may in imagination correctly reconstruct the whole. By a similar process of investigation to that which detected these analogies, many of the general laws which govern the universe might be discovered.
If we study what has passed in the world since men began to preserve the remembrance of events, we soon discover that, in civilized countries, by the side of a despot who governs, there is almost always a lawyer who regularizes, and strives to render consistent with one another, the arbitrary and incoherent decrees of the monarch.
The general and indefinite love of power which animates kings is, by the lawyers, tempered with a love of method, and with the skill which they naturally possess in the management of business. Kings can constrain, for the time being, the obedience of men; lawyers can bend them almost voluntarily to a durable obedience. Kings furnish the power; lawyers invest that power with the form and semblance of a right. Kings seize upon absolute power by force; lawyers give it the sanction of legality. When the two are united, the result is a despotism which scarcely allows a breathing-place to human nature.
He who conceives the idea of the prince, without that of the lawyer, sees only one of the aspects of tyranny; to conceive it as a whole, it is necessary to contemplate them both at once.
Independently of the general causes of which we have spoken, there existed in France many of an accidental and secondary nature, which hastened the concentration of all power in the hands of the king. Paris had, from an early period, acquired a singular preponderance in the kingdom. There existed in France several considerable towns; but there was only one great city, which was Paris. From the middle ages Paris had already begun to be the centre of the intelligence, the riches, and the power of the kingdom. The centralization of political power in Paris continually augmented the importance of that city; and its increasing importance facilitated in turn the concentration of power. The king drew all the public business to Paris, and Paris drew all the public business to the king.
France had formerly been made up of provinces, acquired by treaties or conquered by arms, and which long remained in the position of foreigners towards one another. In proportion as the central power was enabled to subject these different portions of territory to a uniform system of administration, the differences which previously existed among them vanished; and, in proportion as these differences subsided, the central power found greater facilities in extending its sphere of action over all parts of the country. Thus the unity of the people facilitated the unity of the Government, and the unity of Government aided in blending the people into one nation.
At the end of the eighteenth century, France was still divided into thirty-two provinces, in which thirteen parlements, or supreme courts of justice, interpreted the laws according to various conflicting systems. The political constitution of these provinces varied considerably. Some had preserved a sort of national representation, others had never possessed any. In some, the feudal laws were still observed, in others the Roman. All these differences, however, were superficial, or, properly speaking, only external. The whole of France had already, in a manner, but one mind; the same ideas were prevalent from one end of the kingdom to the other; the same customs were in vigour—the same opinions were professed; the human mind was cast in the same mould—had the same general tendencies. The French, in short, with their provinces, their parlements, the diversity of their civil laws, the fantastic variety of their customs, composed, nevertheless, the nation of Europe the most firmly bound together in all its parts, and the most capable, in case of need, of moving as one man.
In the centre of this great nation, composed of elements so homogeneous, was a royal power, which, after having possessed itself of the direction of the greater affairs of the public, aspired also to the regulation of the smaller.
All strong governments strive to centralize the administration; but they succeed more or less in the attempt, according to their own nature.
When the predominant power resides in an assembly, the centralization is more apparent than real. The assembly can interfere only by the enactment of laws, and laws cannot foresee everything; or, even if they did, they cannot be carried into execution but by means of agents, and with the aid of a continual surveillance of which a legislative assembly is incapable. The legislative branch of the government, consequently, is centralized, but not the administrative.
In England, where Parliament is considered entitled to take cognizance of all the affairs of society, whether great or small, administrative centralization is little known; and the great representative body leaves to the will of individuals a great independence in detail. This does not originate in any natural moderation on the part of this great body; it does not pay deference to local liberty from any peculiar respect to it, but because its own constitution does not afford it any efficacious means of interfering with the exercise of that liberty.
When, on the other hand, the predominant power resides in the executive (the man who commands having the means of causing the minutest details of his will to be executed), the central power may gradually extend itself to everything; or, at least, there is nothing in its own constitution which limits it. If this preponderant executive power is placed in the midst of a people among whom everything has already a natural tendency toward the centre—where no citizen is in a condition to resist individually—where numbers cannot legally combine their resistance—and where all, having nearly the same habits and manners, bend without difficulty to a common rule—it is not easy to see what limits can be set to administrative tyranny, nor why (not content with directing the great interests of the State) the agents of Government may not at last assume to regulate the affairs of families.
The above picture represents correctly the state of France before 1789. The royal power had assumed, directly or indirectly, the management of everything, and had no longer, to speak correctly, any limits but in its own will. In most of the towns and provinces it had destroyed even the semblance of a local government, and to the others it had left nothing more than the semblance. The French, while they formed of all the nations of Europe that in which the greatest national unity existed, were also that in which administrative business had been brought into the most systematic form, and where what has since been called Centralization existed in its highest degree.
We have shown that, in France, the constitution tended to become more despotic every day. Nevertheless, by a singular contrast, habits and ideas became constantly more liberal. Liberty disappeared from institutions, and maintained itself more than ever in manners: it seemed to be more cherished by individuals in proportion as the securities for it were less; and one might have thought, that the independence which had been snatched from the great bodies of the State had been conferred upon its individual members.
After having overturned its principal adversaries, the royal power had stopped as it were of itself; it had been softened by victory, and appeared to have contended for the possession of power rather than for its exercise.
It is a great, though a common, error to believe that the spirit of liberty in France had its birth with the revolution of 1789. It had always been one of the distinctive characters of the nation; but this spirit had only shown itself at intervals, and, as it were, by fits. It had been an instinct rather than a principle; irregular, and at once violent and feeble.
Never was a nobility more proud, and more independent in its opinions and in its actions, than the French noblesse of the feudal times. Never did the spirit of democratic liberty show itself with more energy than in the French communes of the middle ages, and in the States-general which assembled at different periods up to the commencement of the seventeenth century (1614). Even when the royal power had substituted itself for all other powers, the national spirit submitted to it, but without servility.
It is necessary to distinguish the fact of obedience from the various causes of that fact. There are nations who bend to the arbitrary will of the prince, because they believe that he has an absolute right to command over them. Others, again, see in him the representative of the idea of country; or the image of God upon earth. There are others, who adore a royal power which succeeds to a tyrannical oligarchy of nobles, and experience, in giving obedience to it, a mixed feeling of gratitude and pleasant repose. In all these kinds of obedience, there is, no doubt, a mixture of prejudice; they denote insufficiency of intelligence, but not degradation of character.
The French of the seventeenth century submitted to royalty rather than to the king, and obeyed royalty not because they merely judged it to be powerful, but because they believed it to be a beneficent and a legitimate power. They had, if we may so speak, a free principle of obedience. They also mixed with their submission a kind of independence, of firmness, of delicacy, of caprice, of irritability, which demonstrated clearly that, in adopting a master, they had retained the spirit of liberty.
The king, who in certain cases could, without restraint, dispose of the fortunes of the State, would have been quite impotent in certain other cases, even to control, in the smallest trifles, the actions of his subjects, or to suppress the most insignificant of opinions; and, in case of resistance to such encroachment, the subject would have been better defended by the state of usages and manners, than the citizens of free countries are often protected by their laws.
But these are sentiments and ideas which nations that have always been free, or even that have become so, do not comprehend. The former have never known them, the latter have long since forgotten them. They both see, in obedience to an arbitrary power, nothing but degradation; and, amongst the people who have lost their liberty after having once enjoyed it, obedience has really that character. But there often enters into the submission of a people who have never been free, a principle of morality which must not be overlooked.
At the close of the eighteenth century this spirit of independence, which had always characterised the French, had not only singularly developed itself, but had entirely changed its character. During this century, a sort of transformation had taken place in the notion which the French had of liberty.
Liberty may be conceived, by those who enjoy it, under two different forms: as the exercise of a universal right, or as the enjoyment of a privilege. In the middle ages, those who possessed any liberty of action, viz. the feudal aristocracy, figured to themselves their liberty under the latter type. They desired it, not because it was what all were entitled to, but because each considered himself as possessing, in his own person, a peculiar right to it. And thus has liberty almost always been understood in aristocratic societies, where conditions are very unequal, and where the human mind, having once contracted the thirst for privileges, ends by ranking among privileges all the good things of this world.
This notion of liberty as a personal right of the individual who so conceives it, or at most of the class to which he belongs, may subsist in a nation where general liberty does not exist. It even sometimes happens that, in a certain small number of persons, the love of liberty is all the stronger in proportion to the deficiency of the securities necessary for the liberties of all. The exception is the more precious in proportion as it is more rare.
This aristocratic notion of liberty produces, among those who have imbibed it, an exalted idea of their own individual value, and a passionate love of independence; it gives extraordinary energy and ardour to their pursuit of their own interests and passions. Entertained by individuals, it has often led them to the most extraordinary actions;—adopted by an entire people, it has created the most energetic nations that have ever existed.
The Romans believed that they alone of the human race were fitted to enjoy independence; and it was much less from nature than from Rome that they thought they derived their right to be free.
According to the modern, the democratic, and, we venture to say the only just notion of liberty, every man, being presumed to have received from nature the intelligence necessary for his own general guidance, is inherently entitled to be uncontrolled by his fellows in all that only concerns himself, and to regulate at his own will his own destiny.
From the moment when this notion of liberty has penetrated deeply into the minds of a people, and has solidly established itself there, absolute and arbitrary power is thenceforth but a usurpation, or an accident; for, if no one is under any moral obligation to submit to another, it follows that the sovereign will can rightfully emanate only from the union of the wills of the whole. From that time passive obedience loses its character of morality, and there is no longer a medium between the bold and manly virtues of the citizen and the base compliances of the slave.
In proportion as ranks become equalized, this notion of liberty tends naturally to prevail.
France, nevertheless, had long emerged from the ignorance of the middle ages, and had modified her ideas and manners in a democratic direction, before the feudal and aristocratic notion of liberty ceased to be universally received. Every one, in protecting his individual independence against the claims of despotism, had still much less in view the assertion of a common right, than the defence of a particular privilege; and the question between him and his oppressor was much less one of principle than one of fact. In the fifteenth century some adventurous spirits had a glimpse of the democratic idea of liberty, but it was almost immediately lost sight of. It was during the eighteenth only that the transformation began to operate.
The idea that every individual, and by extension every people, is entitled to the direction of its own interests—this idea, still vague, incompletely defined, and not yet expressed in any correct language, introduced itself by slow degrees into all minds. It became fixed, as an opinion, among the enlightened classes—it penetrated, as a species of instinct, even among the body of the people.
From this resulted a new and more powerful impulse towards liberty. The taste which the French always had for independence became at length an opinion resting on reason and conviction, which, spreading from one person to another, ended in attracting towards it the royal power itself, which, still absolute in theory, began to acknowledge tacitly by its conduct that public feeling and opinion were the first of powers. “It is I who nominate my ministers,” said Louis XV.; “but it is the nation which dismisses them.” Louis XVI. in prison, retracing his last and most secret thoughts, made use of the term, “My fellow-citizens,” in speaking of his subjects.*
Speaking as the organ of one of the first tribunals of the kingdom, Malesherbes said to the king, in 1770, twenty years before the revolution:—
“You hold your crown, Sire, from God alone; but you will not refuse yourself the satisfaction of believing that, for your power, you are likewise indebted to the voluntary submission of your subjects. There exist in France some inviolable rights, which belong to the nation. Your ministers will not have the boldness to deny this; but, if it were necessary to prove it, we need only invoke the testimony of your Majesty. No, Sire, in spite of all their efforts, they have not yet been able to persuade your Majesty that there is no difference between the French nation and a nation of slaves.”
And further on he adds:—
“Since all the intermediate bodies are impotent or annihilated, interrogate the nation itself;—there only remains the nation to be consulted by you.”*
The spirit of liberty manifested itself, indeed, by writings rather than by actions—by individual efforts rather than by collective enterprises—by an opposition, often puerile and unreasonable, rather than by a grave and systematic resistance.
This force of opinion, acknowledged even by those who often trampled it under foot, was subject to great alternations of strength and weakness; all-powerful to-day, almost imperceptible on the morrow; always irregular, capricious, undefined; a body without an organ; a shadow of the sovereignty of the people rather than the thing itself.
It will be always thus with a people who have the taste and the desire for liberty without having yet known how to establish popular institutions.
It is not that we believe men may not enjoy a species of independence, even in countries where no such institutions exist. Customs and opinions may sometimes, to a certain extent, suffice; but, in these circumstances, men are never secure of the durability of their freedom because they are never assured that they shall at all instants be ready to assert it. There have been times when the nations most in love with their independence have suffered themselves to consider it only as a secondary object. The great utility of popular institutions is, to sustain liberty during those intervals wherein the human mind is otherwise occupied—to give it a kind of vegetative life, which may keep it in existence during those periods of inattention. The forms of a free government allow men to become temporarily weary of their liberty without losing it. When a people are determined to be slaves, it is impossible to hinder their becoming so; but, by free institutions, they may be sustained for some time in independence, even without their own assistance.
A nation which comprised fewer poor, fewer rich, fewer powerful individuals, and fewer absolutely impotent, than any other nation in the world;—a people with whom the theory of equality had taken root in their opinions, the taste for equality in their dispositions;—a country already more homogeneous and united in its parts than any other; subject to a government more centralized, more skilful, and more powerful than any other; and yet in which the spirit of liberty, always vivacious, had recently assumed a new character, more enlarged, more systematic, more democratic, and more restless than in any other country:—such was France—such were the principal features which marked her physiognomy at the end of the eighteenth century.
If we now close the page of history, and, after having allowed half a century to elapse, come to consider what the intervening time has produced—we observe immense changes; but, in the midst of new and unheard-of things, we easily recognise the same characteristic features which struck us half a century earlier. The effects, therefore, said to be produced by the French Revolution are usually exaggerated.
Without doubt, there never was a revolution more powerful, more rapid, more destructive, and more creative than the French Revolution. It would, however, be deceiving ourselves strangely to believe that there arose out of it a French people entirely new, and that an edifice had been erected whose foundation had not existed before. The French Revolution has created a multitude of accessary and secondary things; but, of all the things of principal importance, it has only developed the germs previously existing. It has regulated, arranged, and legalized the effects of a great cause, but has not been itself that cause.
In France conditions were already more equalized than elsewhere; the Revolution carried still further that equality, and introduced it into the laws. The French had, at an earlier period and more completely than any other country, abandoned the minute subdivisions of territory, the innumerable independent authorities, of the feudal system; the Revolution completed the union of the whole country into one body. Already the central power had, more than in any other country, extended its interference to the management of local affairs; the Revolution rendered that power the more skilful, stronger, and more enterprising. The French had conceived, before all others, and more clearly than all others, the democratic idea of liberty; the Revolution gave to the nation itself, if not all the reality, at least all the appearance of sovereign power. If these things are new, they are so only in form, and in their degree of development, not in their principle and in their essence.
All that the Revolution has done would have been done, sooner or later, without it. It was but a violent and rapid process, by the aid of which the changes already effected in society were extended to the government; laws were made to conform themselves to manners; and the direction already taken by opinions was communicated to the outward world.
FRANCE BEFORE THE CONSULATE.
Two Chapters of a Work which was to have been a continuation of “France before the Revolution of 1789” (L’Anoien Régime et la Révolution).
[*]The labours of Messrs. Moheau and De la Michodière, and those of the celebrated Lavoisier, have shown that in 1791 the number of nobles only reached 83,000 individuals, of whom only 18,323 were capable of bearing arms. The noblesse at that time would have formed only about the three-hundredth part of the population of the kingdom. Notwithstanding the authority which the name of Lavoisier imparts to these calculations, we have some difficulty in believing in their perfect accuracy. It seems to us that the number of the nobles must have been greater. See De la Richesse Territoriale du Royaume de France, par Lavoisier, p. 10.
[†]“Je ne suis que le premier gentilhomme de mon royaume.” A gentilhomme is a man whose family has been noble for at least two generations preceding himself.
[‡]Of this the reader may convince himself by perusing the cahiers of the order of the noblesse (their instructions to their representatives) in 1789: he will there perceive that the equality of the nobles among themselves is continually laid down as a principle.
[*]It is stated in the cahiers of the noblesse, in 1789, that “the country is covered with châteaux and mansions formerly inhabited by the noblesse of France, but now abandoned.”—Résumé des Cahiers, tom. ii. p. 206.
[*]See the testament of Louis XVI. written the day previous to his death.
[*]See “Remontrances de la Cour des Aides, 1770.”