Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO M. DE CORCELLE. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 2
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TO M. DE CORCELLE. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 2 
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). 2 vols.
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TO M. DE CORCELLE.
Versailles, September 13, 1851.
. . . Among many subjects of anxiety, you know how earnestly I desire to protect the interests of which you speak—those of religion and piety.
The reaction in favour of belief, and of those who profess to be believers, which we have witnessed since the Republic, can have astonished only those who do not reflect. It has not depended, and will not depend, on the influence of any one man, or even of any particular government; for the most striking characteristic of the times is the powerlessness both of men and of governments to direct the course of social or political changes. This reaction has two principal causes. 1st. The fear of socialism, which, for the time being, has produced on the middle classes an effect similar to that which the French Revolution formerly produced upon the upper ranks. 2dly. The having placed the Government in the hands of the masses, which, for the moment at least, has restored to the Church and to the landlords an influence which they have not enjoyed for sixty years, and which, in fact, even sixty years ago they had ceased to possess; for at that time their influence was merely a light reflected from that of the Government—now they receive it from the spontaneous feelings of the people. As long as these two great causes prevail, the effect which we rejoice in will (unless enormous blunders be committed by the clergy, and still more by their friends) continue.
This reminds me of my opinion, which I think you share, but which unfortunately is not that of most of our religious men, that no government of any description can ever propagate religion in France. They who are so clamorous for the despotic interference of the Government in these matters, or even for any considerable interference on its part, commit a serious error. A strong and absolute Government may interfere in other things with advantage, but not in this. Of this I am as sure as it is possible to be. Not that I deny that, at certain periods and in certain states of society, the ruling powers have exercised a great if not a lasting influence over the religious condition of the country, but on those occasions the Government was in accordance with the people—it only lent its aid.
With us, whoever may be elected as president, no serious or lasting religious reaction will ever take place, except as the result of the inward working of society left to itself. It will spring from individual experience of the necessity of a faith, of the daily need of it and of its special ministers felt by all, either to remedy the moral evils of the age, or to resist its political diseases. The direct action of the Government, instead of forwarding, will only impede this movement; and I will frankly confess that my fears of its being arrested arise from the ill-advised efforts to accelerate it. Think deeply on this last point, and remember, that I desire as ardently as you do to see religion reinstated in our country.
Urge, therefore, the friends of religion never to lose sight of the moral and intellectual condition of the nation. Remember that, on this matter, it is divided between old prejudices and new ideas; that it enters with hesitation into the path which you wish it to follow; that it is always harassed by two terrors, that of the socialists and that of the priests; that its tendency is always to take a step backward when it has made one forward; and further, that the nation is everything; that nothing real or lasting can be effected except by the free exercise of its will. Our endeavours must, therefore, be governed by the utmost prudence, moderation, and circumspection; we must feel always that the great object is not speed, but to make sure of every inch of ground that we gain, and that all merely apparent progress would be in reality a loss, an immense loss, if the public mind should become alarmed and old prejudices should revive. A thousand things fill me with anxious and fatal presentiments. I doubt, not the rectitude nor the good intentions of those who pursue this great object, but their prudence and their skill. And I earnestly hope that I am mistaken in thinking that their impetuosity and excessive confidence in temporal means will in the end cause a reaction, and that the nation will throw itself back into the arms of philosophy, in revenge for its alarm in having been dragged out of them with so much violence. I stop, for my hand is tired. I intended to send you two pages, and here is a volume. At least, it is another proof of the pleasure which I feel in opening my heart to you unreservedly.