Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: HOW THE REPUBLIC WAS READY TO ACCEPT A MASTER. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER I.: HOW THE REPUBLIC WAS READY TO ACCEPT A MASTER. - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
HOW THE REPUBLIC WAS READY TO ACCEPT A MASTER.
One of the most extraordinary subjects of contemplation among the shifting scenes of human life is the interior of the Republic before which all Europe trembled.
The Government, which had at its disposal the most formidable army, and perhaps the greatest generals that had appeared in the world since the downfall of Rome tottered at every instant, steadying itself with difficulty’, always on the point of falling under the weight of its vices and its follies, devoured by innumerable diseases, and, in spite of its youth, consumed by the nameless evil which in general attacks only old governments—a sort of general feebleness, of senile consumption, of which there can be no other definition than an inability to live. Attempts were no longer made to overturn it; but it seemed to have lost the power of standing upright.
After the 18th Fructidor, more power was conferred on the Directory than had ever belonged to the dynasty which the Revolution had overthrown; in fact, it had become despotic, and it followed a revolution which had destroyed every barrier formerly opposed by law, habit, and manners, to the abuse, and sometimes to the use of power. The press was mute. France had returned the representatives designated by the Government; local administrators who were not submissive had been superseded; the Legislature, humbled and powerless, desired only to obey.
Still the Directory was incapable of governing. It occupied the seat of government, but could not wield the power. It never could give regularity to the administration, order to the finances, or peace to the country. The whole of its reign was an anarchy tempered by violence. Not for a single day was its duration expected by one of its supporters. Political parties never took it for an established government—they kept alive their hopes and, above all, their antipathies.
The Government itself was only a party—always restless and violent, it was the least numerous and most contemptible party of all. It was a coterie of regicides, composed almost entirely of second-rate revolutionists, who, by following in the wake of great criminals, or by committing none but obscure crimes, had escaped both under the Reign of Terror and the reaction which followed the 9th Thermidor. These men looked upon the republic as their refuge, but in reality the majority cared for nothing but the power and pleasure which they enjoyed under it. Both sceptical and sensual, all that they had preserved of their former selves was their vigour. It is remarkable that almost all the men whose moral sense had been destroyed in the course of this long revolution, still retained, in the midst of the vices that they acquired, some remnant of the ungoverned and wild courage which had enabled them to take a part in making that revolution. Often, amid their cares and their dangers, they had contemplated and desired a return to the Reign of Terror. They thought of it after Fructidor, they tried to re-establish it after Prairial, but in vain. This fact suggests important reflections.
At the beginning of a violent revolution, the laws, passed in ordinary times, are milder than public opinion suddenly rendered harsh by the influence of new passions. But, at a later period, law becomes more stringent than public opinion, which in its turn paralyses the action of the law. At first, terror reigns as it were without the legislator’s interference, afterwards he often spends his strength in endeavours to create it. The most cruel of the laws of 1793 are less barbarous than many of those passed in 1797, 1798, and 1799. The laws which banished without trial the representatives of the people and the newspaper writers to Guiana, that which authorized the Directory to imprison or transport at will any priests whom it should consider dangerous; the graduated income-tax which, under the name of the forced loan, deprived the rich of the whole of their revenues; and lastly, the famous law of hostages; have a finished and skilful atrocity that did not belong even to the laws of the Convention, and yet they did not re-awaken terror. The men who proposed them were as bold, as unscrupulous, and perhaps more intelligent than their predecessors, in the devices of tyranny; and it is still more striking that these measures were voted almost without discussion, and promulgated without resistance. While most of the laws that prepared and established the Reign of Terror were warmly contested, and excited the opposition of a great part of the country, the laws of the Directory were silently accepted. But they never could be completely enforced, and (this observation deserves especial attention) the same cause aided their birth and deadened their effect. The Revolution had lasted so long that France, enervated and dispirited, had neither surprise nor reprobation left to manifest when the most violent and cruel laws were propounded; but this very moral debility made the daily application of such laws difficult. Public opinion no longer lent its aid; it opposed to the virulence of the Government a resistance, languid indeed, but on account of its languor almost impossible to put down. The Directory wasted its strength in the endeavour.
It is true that this Government, though fruitful in the invention of revolutionary measures, was strangely awkward and incapable in all questions of organization. It never learned to supply the absence of popular enthusiasm by an ably constituted administrative machinery. Its tyranny was always in want of instruments, and its victims escaped because its agents would not seize them. The Directory never understood the great maxim which we soon shall see applied, that to command and to maintain obedience, tyrannical laws, capriciously followed, are less efficacious than mild ones, enforced regularly and almost mechanically every day and against every person, by a skilful administration.
This deadness of the passions, this languor in public opinion, did not show itself merely in the application of revolutionary laws, but in the selection of punishments. For the scaffold was substituted transportation, a penalty often severer than death, but which the people do not see executed, so that while vengeance is satisfied, the unpleasant sight of suffering is avoided.
Towards the end of the Directory, the Jacobins reopened their club. They resumed their badges, their phrases and their habits, for political parties seldom change, and it is a phenomenon worth remarking that they are more inflexible, both in theory and practice, than the individuals who compose them. The Jacobins then acted precisely as they had acted under the Reign of Terror without being able to bring it back. The fear which they inspired had the effect only of making the nation more eager to give up its freedom.
The Directory, after having governed without opposition and almost without control, having interfered with everything, having tried everything, with the absolute power bestowed on it by the events of Fructidor, seemed gradually to expire of itself, and without an effort. (June, 1799; in the language of that time, 30th Prairial, an VII.) The same legislative body that it had decimated, in part recomposed, and always treated as its slave, regained the mastery and resumed the government. But soon the victor knew not what to do with his conquest. Hitherto the administrative machinery had worked irregularly, now it seemed to stand still. It was evident that Assemblies, which are of admirable use sometimes in strengthening, and at other times in moderating the government, are more incapable than the worst governments of directing public affairs.
No sooner had the sovereign power returned to the corps législatif, than universal debility pervaded the administration throughout the country. Anarchy spread from private individuals to officials. No one resisted—no one obeyed. It was like a disbanding army. The taxes, instead of being ill paid, were not paid at all. In every direction, conscripts preferred highway-robbery to rejoining the army. At one time it seemed as if not only order, but civilization itself, were to be overturned. Neither persons, nor property, nor even the high-roads were safe. In the correspondence of the public functionaries with the Government, still preserved in the national archives, is a description of these calamities; for, as a minister of that time said, “The accounts given to the nation should be reassuring; but in the retreat, not exposed to the public eye, where the Government deliberates, everything ought to be told.”
I have before me one of these secret reports, that of the Minister of Police, dated the 30th Fructidor, an VII. (the 16th of September, 1799), on the condition of the country. I gather from it, that, at that time, of the eighty-six departments into which France (properly so called, for I except the recent acquisitions by conquest) was divided, forty-five were abandoned to disorder and civil war. Troops of brigands forced open the prisons, assassinated the police, and set the convicts at liberty; the receivers of taxes were robbed, killed, or maimed; municipal officers murdered, landowners imprisoned for ransom or taken as hostages, lands laid waste and diligences stopped. Bands of two hundred, of three hundred, and of eight hundred men overspread the country. Gangs of conscripts resisted everywhere, arms in hand, the authorities whose duty it was to enrol them. The laws were disobeyed in all quarters; by some to follow the impulse of their passions—by others to follow the practices of their religion; some profited by the state of affairs to strip travellers—others to ring the long-silent church-bells, or to carry the banners of the Catholic faith through the desecrated churchyards.
The means used to suppress disturbances were at once violent and insufficient. We read in these reports, that often when a refractory conscript tried to escape from the soldiers, they killed him as an example. The private dwellings of citizens were continually exposed to public domiciliary visits. Moving columns of troops, almost as disorderly as the bands which they pursued, scoured the country, and extorted ransoms for want of pay or rations.
Paris was cowed. She slept, but uneasily and disturbed by painful dreams. A thousand different prophecies of some terrible outbreak are circulated through the city. Some say that a great movement will be made against the Directory, in favour of Democracy—others think that it will be on the royalist side; a huge fire is to give the signal. Men have been heard to say, “It is foolish to pay one’s rent, for a blow will be struck that will settle every debt; blood will shortly be shed.” Such is the language of the reports.
It is curious to observe the despair into which the sight of this universal confusion throws the reporters; the causes that they assign, and the remedies which they propose. The citizens are in absolute apathy, say some; public spirit is utterly destroyed, say others. Here we find it asserted, that the brigands find asylums everywhere; in another place it is said, that the manœuvres of different parties and the impunity of crime are viewed by patriots with deplorable indifference. A few ask for measures against the supporters of fanaticism; many wish for still more stringent laws against emigrants, priests, and nuns. The greater number are full of astonishment, and consider all that is going on as incomprehensible. The secret disease which surprised the agents of the Directory, the unknown and hidden evil that was sapping the life of authority, was the state of public opinion and public morals—France refused to obey her government.
It is easy to mistake the signs which betoken great convulsions in revolutions of long duration, for these signs vary with the different periods. They even change their nature as the revolution advances. In the beginning public opinion is excited, lively, intolerant, presumptuous, and capricious; in the decline it is patient and sad. After having tolerated nothing, there seem to be no bounds to its powers of endurance. But submission is accompanied by implacable resentment; irritation increases, contempt becomes every day more inveterate, and hatred more bitter, in the midst of obedience. The nation has no longer, as in the commencement of the revolution, force and energy sufficient to push its Government towards the precipice, but it rejoices to see it fall over.
Such was the state of France in 1799. She despised and detested, yet obeyed, her Government.
This secret moral resistance sufficed to paralyze a government which had no internal force or vitality. Often, in our own day, we have seen the executive survive the legislative functions. While the paramount powers in the State were expiring or already overthrown, the subordinate powers still continued to conduct affairs with regularity and firmness. They were times of revolution, but not of anarchy.
The reason is, that now in France the actual executive government forms, to a considerable extent independently of the sovereign, a special administrative body, with habits, rules and instruments of its own, so that it is able for a certain period to present the phenomenon of a headless trunk still proceeding on its way. This was the work of Napoleon. We shall see how, by the construction of this powerful machine, he made revolution at the same time more easy and less destructive.
Nothing similar existed at the time of which we are speaking. The old authorities were overthrown without any other being in reality as yet substituted. The administration was as incoherent and disorderly as the nation; as much without rules, without a hierarchy, and without traditions. The Reign of Terror had been able to work with this ill-made and ill-adjusted machinery. To return to it had become impossible, and in the failure of public spirit the whole political machine fell at once into pieces.
We then presented a sad spectacle; in every direction France bore the traces of the sort of moral decay produced in the long run by the wear and tear of revolutions. All revolutions, even the most necessary, have indeed for a time this effect, but it was stronger, I think, in our case than in any other, and I do not find in history a single event that contributed more to the wellbeing of succeeding generations, or more entirely demoralized the generation that brought it to pass. Many reasons for this may be assigned, and especially the immense mass of property confiscated by the winning party. The French Revolution multiplied, to an extent never before witnessed in any civil war, the number of doubtful properties guaranteed by law but not by conscience. The sellers of confiscated estates were not quite sure of their right to alienate them, nor the buyers of their right to acquire them. With both parties it generally happened that idleness or ignorance prevented their forming a correct opinion on this important point, and interest prevented most of them from looking too closely into the matter. Bad feelings were often excited among millions of men. During the great revolution which preceded the Reformation, in the 16th century—the only revolution that can be compared with the French Revolution—the property of the Church was confiscated, but it was not brought to the hammer. A few great nobles seized it. With us, on the other hand, not only the estates of the Church, but those of almost all great landowners—not the property of a single corporation, but the patrimonies of 100,000 families, were disposed of. It is to be remarked, too, that men did not grow rich merely by the purchase at a low price of confiscated estates, but by the pretended satisfaction of a large amount of incumbrances; the profit was perfectly legal and perfectly dishonest.
Risking the comparison further, I find that the revolution in the sixteenth century threw doubt upon only one set of human opinions, and disturbed established habits on only some points. The moral sense, which in most men is founded less upon reason than upon custom and prejudice, was then only shaken, whereas the French Revolution attacked at the same time political and religious faith, desired to reform simultaneously the individual and the State, tried to change ancient customs, received opinions, and fixed habits on every subject, and all at once; all which produced a universal perturbation in morals, and conscience tottered on every point.
But in long-continuing revolutions, men are morally ruined less by the faults and the crimes that they commit in the heat of passion or of their political convictions, than by the contempt that in the end they acquire for the very convictions and passions which moved them; when wearied, disenchanted, and undeceived, they turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish—their enthusiasm, and above all, their devotion, absurd. None can conceive how often the mainspring of even the strongest minds is broken by such a catastrophe. Man is so crushed by it that not only can he no longer attain to great virtues, but he seems to have become almost incapable of great crimes. Those who saw France reduced to this state imagined that in future it would be impossible for her to make any great moral effort, but they deceived themselves; for if our virtues never satisfy the moral philosopher, our vices never leave him without hope; the truth is, that we never tread either path so decidedly as to be unable to leave it.
The French nation, after having been passionately attached to liberty in 1789, loved her no longer in 1799, though no other object had engaged their affections. Having at one time bestowed on her a thousand imaginary charms, they now could not see even the merits that she really possessed; they could feel only her inconveniences and her dangers. For the last ten years, indeed, they had found in her little else. According to the strong expression of a contemporary, the republic had been nothing but a restless slavery. At what other period in history had the habits of men been so violently interfered with, and when did tyranny enter so deeply into the details of private life? What feelings and what actions had been left free? What habits or what customs had been respected? The private citizen had been forced to change his days of work and rest, his calendar, his table of weights and measures, even his terms of speech. While obliged to bear his part in ceremonies which appeared to him ridiculous and profane, he was not allowed to worship except in secret. He broke the law whenever he obeyed his conscience or indulged his taste. I know not if a similar state of things could have been endured for so long by any other nation, but there is no limit to our patience, nor again to our resistance, on different occasions.
Often during the course of the Revolution the French thought that they were on the point of finding a happy termination of this great crisis; sometimes they trusted in the Constitution, sometimes in the Assembly, and sometimes in the executive itself. Once or twice they trusted in their own exertions, which is always the last resource. All these hopes had been deceived, all these attempts had been made in vain. The march of the Revolution was not arrested. Great changes, indeed, were no longer effected, but a continual agitation was kept up. The wheel, it is true, carried nothing with it, but it seemed likely to go round and round for ever.
It is difficult to imagine, even in these days, the extreme fatigue, apathy, indifference, or rather contempt, for politics, into which such a long, terrible, and barren struggle had thrown men’s minds. Many nations have presented a spectacle of the same nature, but as every nation brings its own peculiar character into a situation resembling that in which others have been placed, on this occasion the French appeared to abandon themselves to fate, with a feverish passionate intoxication. Despairing of escape from their misfortunes, they determined not to think about them. The amusements in Paris, says a contemporary, are now not interrupted for a single instant, either by the terrible events that take place, or by the fear of future calamities. The theatres and public places were never so crowded. At Tivoli you hear it said, that things will soon be worse than ever; patriotism is sneered at,* and through it all we dance. One of the police reports says, that on the pedestal of the statue of Liberty has been placed this inscription: “Our Government resembles the Funeral Service; there is no Gloria, no Credo; a long Offertory, and no Benediction at the end.” Fashion was never so despotic nor so capricious. It was a strange phenomenon that despair revived the frivolity of former times. New features, however, were introduced. Our manners became eccentric, disorderly, in fact revolutionary; trifles, as well as serious things, no longer knew rule or limit.
Institutions are like religions—observances generally survive faith. It was curious to see the government of a nation, which no more cared for liberty than it believed in the continuance of the Republic, in whom all revolutionary zeal seemed to have expired, still obstinately persevering in all the ceremonies introduced by the Revolution. In May it attended solemnly the Fête of the Sovereignty of the People; in the spring i was present at the Fête of Youth; in summer at that in honour of Agriculture; in autumn at the Fête of Old Age. On the 21st of January, all the public functionaries were assembled round the altar dedicated to the country, to swear fidelity to the constitution and hatred to tyrants.
François de Neufchâteau, who was Home Minister in 1799, when France was devoured at home by anarchy and threatened abroad by foreign enemies, was chiefly occupied in arranging these civic fêtes; most of his circulars are on this subject. He depends greatly on pageants, he says, for reviving patriotism and all private virtues. As no one would regard these ridiculous fêtes in earnest, a law was passed (the 17th Thermidor, 6th year) to force the shopkeepers, on pain of fine or imprisonment, to close their establishments on fête-days and on the decades; and to forbid, under the same penalty, any work to be done on these days on the highroads or within the public view. As the appellation of citizen had become vulgar and had fallen out of use, the Government posted up in large letters in all the public places these words: “Here men are proud of the title of citizen.” The revolutionary, which was the governing party, kept up likewise in its official language all the common-places of the Revolution. The last thing abandoned by a party is its phraseology, because among political parties, as elsewhere, the vulgar make the language, and the vulgar abandon more easily the ideas that have been instilled into it than the words that it has learnt. When one reads the harangues of the time, it seems as if nothing could be said simply. Soldiers are called warriors; wives—faithful companions; children—pledges of love. Duty is never mentioned, virtue takes its place; no one ever promises less than to die for his country and for liberty. The contemptible part is, that most of the orators who delivered these speeches were themselves almost as wearied, as disgusted, and as cold as their hearers; but it is a sad necessity to violent passions in their decline, that long after they have lost all influence over the heart, the expressions that once were natural to them survive. Any one who had derived all his information from the newspapers might have imagined that he lived in the midst of a nation passionately fond of liberty and interested in public affairs. Their language had never been more inflated, nor their demands more clamorous, than when they were on the eve of a fifteen years’ silence. To ascertain the real power of the press, attention should be paid, not to what it says, but to the way in which the public listens. Its very vehemence is sometimes a forerunner of its entire extinction; its clamours are often the proof of its perils. It screams only because its audience is growing deaf, and this very deafness makes it safe to silence it.
Although the people were from this time excluded from the conduct of affairs, it must not be thought that they were indifferent to their personal danger. Exactly the contrary was the case. The French had never perhaps so dreaded the consequences to themselves of political events, as when they were no longer able to direct them. In politics, fear is a passion that grows at the expense of all others; everything terrifies when nothing is any longer ardently desired. The French, too, have a sort of joyous desperation, which deceives their rulers; they laugh at their own misery, but they feel it no less. At this time, though full of their own petty affairs and dissipated by pleasure, they were worn by political anxieties. Suspense that was almost unbearable, terror that seems to us incredible, took possession of every mind.
Although the dangers of that time were, on the whole, infinitely less than those of the beginning of the Revolution, they inspired terror that was more intense and more general, because the nation had less energy, feebler passions, and more experience. All the evils that had overpowered the people for ten years were combined in their fancy to form a picture of the future; and after having permitted to take place, without alarm and even without foreboding, the most terrible catastrophes, they trembled at their own shadows. On reading the edicts of the time, it is evident that the most opposite things were feared; some dreaded the abolition of property, and others the return of feudal rights. Often the same man, after fearing one of these evils, immediately apprehended the other; in the morning a Restoration, in the evening a return of the Reign of Terror. Many were afraid of showing their fear; and it was not till after the crisis of the 18th Brumaire that it was possible to measure, by the extent of their satisfaction and the excess of their joy, the depth of pusillanimity into which the Revolution had plunged these enervated souls.
Although experience ought to prepare us for any amount of caprice in men, some surprise may be permitted to us at seeing so great a change in the disposition of a nation; so much selfishness succeeding to such devotion; so much indifference, to such vehemence; so much cowardice, to so much heroism; such utter contempt for what they had desired so ardently and paid for so dearly. Such a complete and sudden revolution cannot be explained by ordinary moral laws. The character of our nation is so peculiar, that the study of human nature in general does not embrace it; those even who have most studied it are continually taken by surprise; for our nation is gifted beyond any other with capacity to appreciate great things, and even to do them; it is equal to any single effort, however extraordinary, but unable to remain strung up to a high pitch for any length of time; because we act upon impulse, not on principle, and our instincts are better than our moral qualities; we are the most civilized people in the world, and yet, in certain respects, we have retained more of the savage than any other nation; for the great characteristic of the savage is, to be influenced by the sudden impressions of the present, without recollection of the past or thought of the future.
[*]“On appelle la Patrie la Patraque,” are the French words. Patraque is slang for an old worn-out machine.—Tr.