Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: HOW THE NATION, THOUGH IT CEASED TO BE REPUBLICAN, REMAINED REVOLUTIONARY. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
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CHAPTER II.: HOW THE NATION, THOUGH IT CEASED TO BE REPUBLICAN, REMAINED REVOLUTIONARY. - 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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HOW THE NATION, THOUGH IT CEASED TO BE REPUBLICAN, REMAINED REVOLUTIONARY.
The Royalists, seeing the disgust conceived against liberty by the nation, fancied that it was anxious to return to the old* system. Almost all parties whose day has gone by are apt to imagine that because their successors are hated they must be loved, not perceiving how much easier it is for men to be constant in their antipathies than in their affections. France, though she no longer loved the Republic, was still strongly attached to the Revolution. Such important consequences follow from this fact, that it deserves to be considered at some length.
As time passed on, and the ancien régime faded in the distance, the people grew more and more resolved not to return to it. The phenomenon was remarkable. The Revolution seemed to become dear to the nation in proportion to the suffering which it inflicted. From the writings of the time it is evident, that this it was which most astonished the enemies of the Revolution. When they contrasted the evils that it produced with the attachment that it retained, France seemed to them to have become raving mad.
These opposite effects, however, were due to one cause.
Men suffered more and more from the Revolution the longer the bad government which had risen out of it lasted, while this very duration made the habits that it had planted take root, and increased the number and variety of the interests which it sustained. As the nation advanced, barrier after barrier rose up behind and impeded a return. Most Frenchmen had taken an active share in affairs since the beginning of the Revolution, and had attested their adherence to it by public acts; they felt almost themselves responsible for the calamities that had ensued. This responsibility seemed to strengthen with the increase and duration of the evils. Thus the Reign of Terror gave to many, even of its victims, an unconquerable aversion to the re-establishment of old rights, the owners of which would have so many injuries to resent.
Something like this has been witnessed in every revolution. Even the most oppressive render a return to a former state intolerable to the nation, if they only last long enough. Our revolution, besides, did not oppress the whole country in an equal degree; some suffered little by it, and among those even who bore the burden many had found considerable advantages mixed with the evils that it had caused. I believe that the comfort of the lower classes was much less disturbed than is commonly supposed. At least they had great alleviations of their misfortunes. Great numbers of workmen having willingly, or by compulsion, joined the army, those who remained in France obtained much higher pay. Wages rose in spite of public and private calamities, for the working class diminished still more quickly than the demand for their services.* One of the principal foes of the Revolution, Mallet-Dupan, writes in 1796: “The working men earn more now than in 1790.” Sir Francis d’Ivernois, who for ten years imposed on himself the task of proving once a year to England that France, exhausted by misery, had only six months to live, acknowledges in his last pamphlet, written in 1799, that wages had risen everywhere since the Revolution, and that the price of wheat had fallen.
As for the peasantry, I need not repeat that they were able to purchase much land at a low price. It is impossible to set down precisely in figures the gain that they made, but it is well known that it was considerable. All the world knows that the Revolution abolished many heavy and vexatious taxes, such as tithes, feudal dues, forced labour, the salt-tax, some of which were never reimposed, and others only partially, and at a much later period. At this day we can scarcely imagine how hateful many of those taxes were to the people, either on account of their oppressiveness, or from the ideas with which they were connected.
In the year 1831 I was in Canada, and when conversing with the peasants of French extraction, I found that in their language the word taille (poll-tax) was synonymous with misery and evil. They call any great misfortune “a regular taille.” The tax itself I believe to have never existed in Canada; at any rate it had been abolished for more than half a century. Its meaning was even lost, the name alone remained in the language as a lasting proof of the horror that it had inspired.
Another fact, which has not sufficiently been noticed, is the less direct and regular, but not less real benefit conferred by the Revolution on many poor debtors. Their debts were not actually abolished in law, but soon afterwards they were reduced in fact by the issue of paper money.
It is now known that in many provinces in France the number of small proprietors was considerable, even before 1789. There is reason for thinking (although the fact cannot be absolutely proved) that most of these small landowners were involved in debt, for at that time they bore the chief burden of taxation. Now even, when the weight of contributing to the revenue is laid on all equally, that class still falls most into debt. The possessors of small encumbered estates nearly filled the towns, for France has always been a country abounding more in vanity and in wants than in wealth. We must note, that before the Revolution, as in our own day, the farmers formed a numerous class, because our farms are in general small. The rapid depreciation of paper-money operated universally, as if all securities had been thrown into the fire, and rents reduced to nothing. The disorder of the times, and, still more, the weakness of the administration, prevented even the debt to the State from being regularly or fully paid. The financial records of the Republic show that neither the old taxes which were retained nor the new ones that were imposed were ever completely collected. The State was maintained by means of assignats by payment in kind, and by the spoils of Europe. M. Thibeaudeau said with reason in his memoirs, “that the discredit of assignats, while it ruined the great proprietors and annuitants, made the fortunes of the peasants and farmers.”
“The country,” wrote in 1795 M. Mallet-Dupan, whom I have already quoted, “grows rich by the poverty of the towns; fabulous profits are made in it. A sack of flour pays the farmer’s rent. The peasantry have become calculating and speculating; they fight with each other for the lands of emigrants, and pay no taxes.”
A foreigner, evidently a man of talent, who was travelling in France at this period, wrote in his journal, “In France, at the present day, the rich aristocracy is the aristocracy of farmers and peasants.”
It is true that the peasant had to set against these advantages some oppressions incident to the times, the billetting of soldiers and requisitions in kind; but these partial and momentary evils did not prevent his enjoying the benefits of the Revolution. On the contrary, he became more and more attached to them, and he bore these annoyances as he bore storms and floods, for which a good estate is never abandoned, though they make the owner long for a fair season that will enable him to turn it to good account.
When one considers the means by which the originators of our first revolution succeeded in gaining the hearts of the agricultural classes, and with what substantial gifts they obtained the enthusiastic suffrage of the small farmers and lower classes (that is, of the masses) for their work, in spite of the misery and desolation of the period, one wonders at the simplicity of some democrats in our own day who thought that it would be easy to persuade a highly civilized people to submit patiently to the inconvenience inseparable from a great political change, by the bribe of freedom instead of that of plunder and profit.
The middle class (la Bourgeoisie), especially that of the towns, who began the revolution, was, of the victorious party, the class that had chiefly to bear the burden. Its personal sufferings were greater, and its substantial losses relatively almost as great as those of the nobles. Its trade was partially, its manufactures were totally destroyed. The small Government employments, and many other privileges belonging to it, were abolished, but the events which ruined it made it the governing class. The power of the State passed to it immediately, the fortune of the State soon followed. The greater part of the innovations which were suddenly produced by the violent and disorderly tyranny of the Revolution had been expected, extolled, and longed-for all through the eighteenth century. They satisfied the judgment and charmed the imagination even of those with whose interests they interfered. The only fault found with these innovations was that they had cost too dear. Even the price that had been paid rendered some of them still more precious. Much as France, therefore, feared and suffered, there was always one thing which seemed worse than present pain and anxiety; it was a return to the past.
Some ingenious modern writers have undertaken the defence of the Ancien Régime. My first remark is that it is a small proof of the excellence of a government when men wait to praise it till they have ceased to believe in the possibility of its restoration. But I judge of it, not from my own ideas, but from the feelings that it inspired in those who endured and overthrew it. All through the course of that cruel and tyrannical revolution I see hatred towards the Ancien Régime surpass in the heart of every Frenchman every other hatred, and so deeply rooted as to survive the object of its abhorrence, and from a passing impulse become a permanent instinct. I observe that during the most dangerous vicissitudes of the last sixty years, fear of the return of the Ancien Régime has always extinguished in our restless, excitable minds, every other fear. This is enough for me. The experiment, in my opinion, has been made.
The impossibility of forcing the French back into the former state of things was seen, indeed, almost immediately after they had escaped from it. Mirabeau proclaimed it from the first, and by many of the greatest enemies to the new institutions it soon was discovered. The following extract is from a little pamphlet published during the emigration, by M. de Montlosier (in 1796), and perhaps the most remarkable production of his vigorous and eccentric mind.
“Monarchy,” he said, “has sunk with the weight of our rights and privileges which clung to it for salvation. We must sacrifice our rights and privileges before it rises to the surface. We are assured that every one curses the Revolution; I am quite willing to believe it. I am only trying to find out if there is not some difference between cursing the Revolution and wishing to restore the ancient state of things. France wishes only to remain as she is, and to be at peace. No one will consent to lose the fruit of his talents or of circumstances. Generals will not again be privates, judges do not choose again to be constables, the mayors and residents of the department are not willing to be once more labourers or artizans, those who have obtained our fortunes are not likely to give them up. The thing is done, the Revolution cursed by the whole of France has spread over the whole of France. We must take this confusion as it is, find our places in it, and convince ourselves that it will not value us at our former price.”*
Most of the emigrants had different ideas. The mistakes of these royalists living abroad would appear to be inconceivable, if we did not know that they were brought up in the prejudices and illusions of an unpolitical aristocracy, and that they had long lived in exile. The punishment of exile is especially cruel in this respect, that, while it inflicts suffering, it teaches nothing.
It crystallizes, as it were, the minds of its victims, fixes in them the notions acquired in childhood, or those that were in vogue when they were exiled. For them the facts that occur, the new customs that are established in their country, do not exist. They stand still like the hands of a watch at the hour when it stopped. This is said to be an infirmity peculiar to the minds of certain exiles. I believe that it is a malady incident to exile, from which few escape.
The emigrants, then, lived in the imaginary enjoyment of their privileges, long after these privileges had been lost to them for ever. They were always thinking of what they would do when they should be reinstated in the possession of their estates and of their vassals, without remembering that Europe trembled before those vassals. Their chief uneasiness was not lest the republic might last, but lest monarchy should not be restored precisely such as it had been before its fall. They hated the constitutionalists more than the terrorists; they talked only of the just severity that they would exercise when they should return to power, and in the meantime they persecuted each other; in short, they omitted nothing that might maintain the detestation in which they were held; or that might give an idea to France of an ancien régime more odious than that which had been destroyed. Divided between fears of the royalists and of the Jacobins, the mass of the nation sought for an escape. The Revolution was loved, but the Republic was feared lest it should bring back the royalists or the Jacobins. We may even say that each of these passions nourished the other; it was because the French set great value upon certain benefits conferred upon them by the Revolution, that they felt all the more keenly the inconvenience that would result from a government which should interfere with their enjoyment of them. Of all the privileges that they had won or obtained during the last ten years, the only one that they were willing to surrender, was liberty! They were ready to give up the liberty which the Revolution had only promised, to enjoy at length in peace the other advantages that it had given to them.
All parties, indeed, reduced, cold, and weary, longed to rest for a time in a despotism of any kind, provided that it were exercised by a stranger, and weighed upon their rivals as heavily as on themselves. This stroke finishes the picture. When great political parties begin to cool in their attachments, without softening their antipathies, and at last reach the point of wishing less to succeed than to prevent the success of their adversaries, one must prepare for slavery—the master is near. It was easy to see that this master could rise only from the army.
It is interesting to follow throughout the different phases of this long revolution, the gradual advance of the army towards sovereign power. In the beginning, the army was dispersed by an unarmed populace, or, rather, fell to pieces in the rapid changes of public opinion. For a long time it stood aloof from all internal affairs. The population of Paris usurped the power of making and unmaking the rulers of France. Still the revolution goes on. The enthusiasm which it had inspired fades; the able men who had directed its course in the Assembly retire or die. The government relaxes; public opinion, stern in the early days of the Revolution, becomes weak, anarchy spreads in every direction. Meanwhile the army acquires consistency, experience and fame; great generals are formed. It retains a common object and common passions, while the nation has them no more. In short, the military and the civilians grow into two entirely distinct societies, within the same period and in the heart of the same nation. The chain that binds the one is drawn closer, while that which unites the other relaxes its hold.
On the 13th Vendémiaire, 1795, the army, for the first time since 1789, took part in internal affairs. It caused the victory of the Convention, and the discomfiture of the middle class in Paris.
In 1797, on the 18th Fructidor, it assisted the Directory in the conquest, not only of Paris, but of the legislative body, or rather of the whole country, by which that body had been chosen. On the 30th Prairial, 1799, it refused to support the very Directors whom it held responsible for its own reverses, and they fell before the Assembly.
After the 13th Vendémiaire, no government was possible without the army. Soon after, there could be no government except through the army. Having reached this point, it chose to assume the government itself. One step induced the other. Long before they were really masters, the soldiery adopted the tone and habits of command. A German-Swiss, a great partizan of the Revolution and friend to the Republic, who travelled in France in 1798, remarks with regret, that to judge from the military parade at the public festivals, the tyranny of the soldiers, and the insolence with which they repulsed the public, one would think that never in the Royal fêtes had so little respect been shown to the people.
The friends of the Republic, who perceived the growing influence of the army, consoled themselves by considering that the military had always exhibited ultra-republican passions, by which it seemed still to be violently agitated, while they had disappeared in the rest of the nation. What they took for love of the Republic was chiefly love for the Revolution. In fact, the army was the only class in France of which every member, without exception, had gained by the revolution, and had a personal interest in supporting it. Every officer owed his rank to it, and every soldier his hopes of becoming an officer. The army was, in truth, the Revolution roused and in arms. When it still wildly exclaimed,—“Long live the Republic!” it was only as a challenge to the ancien régime, whose adherents cried,—“Long live the King!” In reality it cared nothing for the liberties of the nation. Hatred to foreigners, and a love of his native land, are in general the only elements of the soldier’s patriotism, even in free countries; still more must this have been the case in a nation in the then state of France. The army, like almost every other army in the world, could make nothing of the slow and complicated movements of a representative government; it detested and despised the Assembly, because it was incapable of understanding any power that was not strong and simple, and all that it wanted was national independence and victories.
The recent revolution having thus prepared the way, it must not be supposed that a clear idea was formed of what was coming. There are moments when the world resembles one of our theatres before the curtain rises. We know that we shall see a new play. We already hear the preparations on the stage; the actors are close to us, but we cannot see them, and we know not what the piece is to be. In like manner, especially toward the end of the year 1799, the approach of a revolution was heard in every direction, though none knew whence it was to come. It appeared to be impossible for the existing state of things to continue, and seemed equally impossible to escape from it. In every correspondence of the time is this sentence: “things cannot remain as they are”—no more is added. Even imagination was exhausted. Men were tired of hoping and predicting. France abandoned herself to her fate; filled with dread, but overcome by languor, she looked wearily from side to side to see if no one could come to her aid. It was evident that this deliverer must rise from the army. Who could it be? Some named Pichegru, some Moreau, others thought that it would be Bernadotte.*
“Retired into the country in the heart of the Bourbonnais,” writes M. Fiévée in his memoirs, “one fact only recalled me to politics; every peasant whom I met in the fields, the vineyards, or the forest stopped me to ask if there were any news of General Bonaparte, and why he did not return to France; I was never asked any question concerning the Directory.”
[*]Similar causes produced a similar phenomenon at the close of the Empire. The condition of the working classes improved in the midst of our disasters.
[*]In a report on the debts of the emigrants, made in 1798 by the head of the “Bureau de liquidation,” Bergerat, we read that the debts of the emigrants from the Department of the Seine alone equalled in amount all the debts left by the emigrants in the other departments, because all the great landowners in France lived in Paris. Nothing can show better than this fact that the nobles had ceased to be a political aristocracy, and become merely a select society; they had exchanged real power for court favour.
[*]Towards the last, the approach of the catastrophe became so evident that even the amusements were interrupted in Paris. At the end of Fructidor, about two months before the 18th Brumaire, we find, in a literary journal of fashion, among various attempts at poetry, this advertisement, in which the frivolity, the anxieties, and the monstrous taste of the time are well painted: “We shall publish no new fashions till this crisis is over. At present fear and anxiety appear to have usurped the empire over our polished countrymen.”