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1853: TO BARON BUNSEN. - 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 BARON BUNSEN.
Paris, January 2, 1853.
I venture to write to you, Sir, though I have not the honour of being personally known to you. I have no sort of right to ask you for advice, and yet I do so. I hope that you will excuse this strange behaviour, when I tell you that it is the result of your well-known kindness and talents.
Being completely excluded from public affairs, and having made up my mind to stand aloof from them, I have resumed occupations which afford me more satisfaction than I have ever obtained from politics. At this moment I am studying the circumstances which accompanied the birth of our Revolutions; or rather, I should say, of our Revolution, for there has been but one, which is still going on, and is not nearly over. I try to conjure up its first beginnings, and to form a clear idea of the impressions and ideas first suggested to foreigners by the yet indistinct view of that great convulsion. I want to trace the different opinions formed of it in foreign countries during the years 1787, ’88, ’89, ’90, ’91 and ’92, by the remarkable men of the time, whether writers, statesmen, or princes; what they at first expected that it was to be; how they thought that it would affect, or that it might affect their own countries; the degree of influence that they expected it to exercise over the general progress of European affairs, and the uses to which they thought that they might turn it.
Unfortunately, to my great regret, I do not know Germany. Till now, I have lived almost exclusively in the English world. I fancy that during the last sixty years, many memoirs, letters, and diplomatic papers, must have been published in Germany, which explain all that I want to know. As I am not acquainted with them, I cannot ask for them. It is certain that when the French Revolution first broke out, it must have given rise to publications reflecting the general impressions. My slender knowledge of German and my almost entire ignorance (which, however, is happily not incurable), of Germany, deprive me of this necessary information. In this extremity I thought of addressing myself to you, Sir; I considered that no one would be more able to enlighten me, or more disposed to do so. I, therefore, determined upon writing to you; if there are no such documents as I suppose, my resolution will, at any rate, have given me an opportunity, which I have long desired, of entering into personal relations with you.
Pray accept, Sir, my excuses, together with the assurance of my highest esteem.
TO HENRY REEVE, ESQ.
Tocqueville, March, 1853.
I have received, dear Friend, your interesting letter. I will not again enter fully into its subject. I acknowledge that one is never in a position to judge of what appertains to the honour and interests of a foreign nation; that it alone is able to judge of these questions; that there is always some absurdity, in public as in private life, in giving advice to one’s neighbours; and that it is especially out of place in us Frenchmen, to whom it may well be said, when we meddle with the infirmities of others, “Physician; cure thyself.” I will, therefore, offer only a few explanations.
1st.—I never said, nor meant to say, that England had abandoned the great calling of chief representative of lawful liberty in Europe. I tried only to show what would be the consequences if she did. Not only do I not think that she will entirely abandon it, but I even doubt her power to do so. Her laws, her habits, her opinions, will always be stronger in this matter than her politics; and if ever she should forget that she is the champion of liberty, the hatred and terror of all the continental despots will force it on her remembrance.
2d.—I said that if England abandoned this great calling she must thereby give up taking any part in the affairs of the Continent; I did not say, of the World. Thus restricted, I think that my observation was just, and the comparison that I drew between the present crisis and the Reformation, exact. Now as then, Europe is divided, and still more by principles than by interests. We will suppose that, having become indifferent and neutral in all questions of principle, England draws back from the continental struggles, and extends herself beyond the seas, as you yourself say. This is what I meant by quitting the great theatre of human affairs; for after all this theatre is not at Sidney, nor even Washington, it is still in Old Europe. Observe that I spoke of England, not of the English race; for who does not know that Providence has decreed that the future fate of the world belongs to two races, the Slavonic and the Anglo-saxon?
3d.—I further did not say, that in my opinion England ought to assume the position of the chief representative of liberal ideas in Europe; I said only, that in my opinion, England ought not to abandon it; which seems to me to be very different. Nations, like individuals who have any self-respect, pledge themselves as to their future conduct by their past. For many years you have been the champions of liberty: you embraced her cause when she was strong; I think that it would be base in you to abandon her now that she is weak. You had better have never paid any attention to her.
Having said this, permit me, my dear friend, to let the subject drop. As I said at the beginning, one never can know thoroughly any country but one’s own; and above all, one has no right to express an opinion as to what is essential to the interests or to the honour of any other nation. Indeed, what I said of yours was only by the way, and in the freedom of conversation between friends.
TO M. GUSTAVE DE BEAUMONT.
Paris, March 3, 1853.
. . . What is now going on in the East is a new and, perhaps, one of the last phases of the Turkish Empire. . . . This affair and many others bring into relief the gradual change which has come over the English temperament, which is daily becoming more pacific, less irritable and less proud, than at any previous period in modern history. This I believe to be only the result of the great revolution which has been at work there—slowly indeed, but as irresistibly as everywhere else—the predominance of the middle classes over the aristocracy, and of the commercial and manufacturing element over the agricultural and real property one. Will this be a good or an evil? Your grandchildren will discuss this question. A society calmer and duller, more tranquil and less heroic; such, no doubt, will be the spectacle presented to our successors, who probably will not see anything new in it. For one must stand as we do, at the point where the two roads branch off, to be able to see both distinctly.
My health is becoming gradually re-established; I am again hard at work, but as yet I have produced nothing definite. I am lost in an ocean of research, in the middle of which I am sometimes worn out and disheartened. It is not only that I am out of heart about myself, but with mankind in general; with the limits and uncertainty of our knowledge, with its incessant repetition in different words for the last three thousand years; in fact, with the insignificance of our race, of our world, of our fate, of what we call our great revolutions and our great public affairs. . . Still, one must work; for it is our sole resource for forgetting the misery of surviving the empire of one’s own opinions, and of becoming more of a stranger in one’s own country than abroad.
TO BARON BUNSEN.
Paris, May 23, 1853.
I ought to have answered immediately, through our mutual friend Reeve, your letter of last month; and I intended to do so, but my health, which at that time was very bad, prevented me. Since then I have been waiting for an opportunity which is now offered to me by Mr. Senior. I was anxious to be able to thank you for the book which you had the kindness to send to me I have not yet been able to read it, as I wished first to learn enough German to be able to enjoy its perusal as it deserves. I have also been wishing to thank you for your interesting letter. I set immense store by your opinion of my writings. I consider it as one of my greatest rewards for the constant efforts that I have made in the cause of truth.
I am touched by your kind wish to see me. I have long cherished the desire of meeting you. I do not know when I shall be able to gratify it, for you cannot leave England, and there is no likelihood of my travelling this year; both my health and my mind have need of rest, and even of solitude. Thirteen years of public life, four of revolutions, and more than that, the melancholy produced by the present state of my country and by my anticipations of the future, have shaken my constitution. Rest and study alone can enable mind and body to recover their tone. I am, therefore, looking forward with pleasure to leaving Paris in a few days, and retiring to the country. Among the studies to which I propose to devote myself is that of the German language. I intend in a year’s time to be a sufficient proficient in it to travel in Germany with advantage. If one might venture to speak of one’s plans for a year hence, I should say that it is my full intention to visit next year Germany: a country which has always interested me, but whither I have never chosen to go till now, being convinced that one can never travel with pleasure or advantage unless one knows the language of the people. I shall try to see and to converse with you before I undertake this journey, and if I am not able to do so, I hope that, at least, you will permit me to write to you, and not to close here a correspondence on which I set so high a value.
TO W. R. GREG, ESQ.
Paris, May 23, 1853.
I will not wait, Sir, for the arrival of the book* which you have promised me, before thanking you for your kindness in sending it. I am sure that I shall find it both instructive and interesting. I have never read anything of yours, but I have often heard your writings spoken of, and in such terms as make me value beforehand the work that I am expecting.
I regret to have seen so little of you, and that my health was not in a condition to admit of my receiving you as I should have liked. What I already know of you makes me wish most sincerely to know more. I hope to be more fortunate on your next visit, and that you will allow me some long conversations. You will teach me much of which I am still ignorant, with regard to your country, and I will talk to you of mine more clearly and more in detail than I have as yet had the opportunity of doing. All that I will now say is, that of all countries this is the one as to which it is most dangerous to form an opinion by what usually takes place in others, or even by one’s experience of mankind in general. There is something both in our good and in our bad qualities so peculiar, so extraordinary, and so unexpected, that the French themselves are constantly taken by surprise, and strangers can scarcely understand anything about us.
Adieu. Do not forget me on your next visit, and believe that when I say that I am anxious to see you, it is a sincere wish, not a mere compliment.
T. M. FRESLON (FORMERLY MINISTER OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION).
St. Cyr, near Tours, June 9, 1853.
I should have thanked you sooner, my dear friend; for the pleasure which your correspondence gives me, and for your kindness in continuing it, if I had had matter to write about, and time to write. This last expression surprises you. Nothing can be more true; I repeat that I have no time. I arrange, as I did when I was minister, my day so as to put into it all that I have to do, and I scarcely succeed. I have found at Tours a treasure, not of gold, but of papers, precious for the work that I am now about. I have no doubt, however, but that one would find the same in all the archives belonging to the prefectures, which formerly were the head quarters of the ancient “Trésoriers de France.” These documents give a clear idea of the way in which the different branches of public affairs, which together formed the administration, were conducted, and even of those who directed and were concerned in them.
It is a curious study. I alone, I think, could have had courage enough to begin, and patience enough to go on with it. A quantity of useless dust has to be swallowed. The part that is capable of digestion is not such as can appear at length in the book that I am composing; for the design of a book is like that of a picture, its perfection does not depend upon the finish of one part—but on the relations between all the parts, whence arises the general effect. I should be wrong in making my principal object the “Ancien Régime.” But I am obliged to make myself thoroughly acquainted with it in order to reproduce, without hazarding false touches, its principal features; and especially to judge and to point out the manner in which it affected the revolution which destroyed it. I do not think, therefore, that I am losing my time, as I am sometimes tempted to fancy, when I see one day following another, and time roll on without producing more than a mountain of notes, which will be finally condensed into a chapter of thirty pages.
At any rate, this study has for the moment the immense advantage of almost entirely absorbing me. In order to obtain this result still more completely, I have added to it the study of German, and that of many books distantly connected with my subject. I thus escape from my thoughts, which were very bad for me. But in spite of all my endeavours, I cannot prevent, even in the midst of my occupations, some sounds of the outer world from penetrating to me. I can be calm, but not gay. I see that it is useless to hope for anything more, and that I must be contented.
TO N. W. SENIOR, ESQ.
St. Cyr, near Tours, July 2, 1853.
I have followed your advice, my dear Senior, and I have read, or rather re-read, Blackstone. I studied him twenty years ago. Each time it has made upon me the same impression. Now, as then, I have ventured to consider him (if one may say so without blaspheming) an inferior writer, without liberality of mind or depth of judgment; in short, a commentator and a lawyer, not what we understand by the words jurisconsulte and publiciste. He has, too, in a degree which is sometimes amusing, a mania for admiring all that was done in ancient times, and for attributing to them all that is good in his own. I am inclined to think that if he had had to write, not on the institutions, but on the products of England, he would have discovered that beer was first made from grapes, and that the hop is a fruit of the vine—rather a degenerate product, it is true, of the wisdom of our ancestors—but as such worthy of respect. It is impossible to imagine an excess more opposite to that into which fell at that period his contemporaries in France, for whom it was enough that a thing was old for it to be bad. But enough of Blackstone; he must make way for what I really want to say to you.
In comparing the feudal institutions in England immediately after the conquest with those in France, you find between them not only an analogy, but a perfect resemblance, much greater than Blackstone seems to think or, at any rate, chooses to say. In reality, the system in the two countries is indentical. In France, and over the whole continent, this system produced a caste; in England, an aristocracy. How is it that the word gentleman, which in our language denotes a mere superiority of blood, with you is now used to express a certain social position, and amount of education independent of birth; so that in the two countries the same word, though the sound remains the same, has entirely changed its meaning? When did this revolution take place? How, and through what transitions? Have no books ever treated of this subject in England? Have none of your great writers, philosophers, politicians, or historians, ever noticed this characteristic and pregnant fact, tried to account for it, and to explain it?
If I had the honour of a personal acquaintance with Mr. Macaulay, I should venture to write to ask him these questions. In the excellent history which he is now publishing, he alludes to this fact, but he does not try to explain it. And yet, as I said before, there is none more pregnant, nor containing within it so good an explanation of the difference between the history of England and that of the other feudal nations in Europe. If you should meet Mr. Macaulay, I beg you to ask him, with much respect, to solve these questions for me. But tell me what you yourself think.
You must think me, my dear friend, very tiresome with all these questions and dissertations; but of what else can I speak? I pass here the life of a Benedictine monk, seeing absolutely no one, and writing whenever I am not walking. I expect this cloistered life to do a great deal of good both to my mind and body. Do not think that in my convent I forget my friends. My wife and I constantly talk of them, and especially of you and of our dear Mrs. Grote. I am reading your MSS.* which interest and amuse me extremely. They are my relaxation. I have promised Beaumont to send them to him as soon as I have finished them.
TO W. R. GREG, ESQ.
St. Cyr, July 27, 1853.
Nearly a month ago I was wishing to write to you, but I was prevented by the fear of my letter not reaching you. I did not know your exact address, and even now I am not perfectly certain whether I have it right. I wished to give my sincere opinion on the two volumes† that you were so kind as to send to me, and to tell you how much pleasure I derived from their perusal. Be sides much praise that they well deserve, I should have allowed myself to offer a few criticisms. But I defer this to a future time. I think that you would prefer my confining myself in this letter to answering the questions that you put to me.
It is understood that we are not speaking of the present electoral system . . . but only of the electoral system of the constitutional monarchy, and of the republic.
I must beg you, while you read the following remarks, never to lose sight of what I once before pointed out to you, that France must always be considered apart from other nations; that especially in the matter of which I am now treating, she is never to be compared with England—a fact which you will acknowledge when you recollect that in England you have an aristocracy and powerful local influences, while we in France have nothing of the sort. You have no centralization, while we have centralized the administration more than perhaps has ever been done in a great country. Whence it results that in England corruption and intimidation are the instruments chiefly of the great landowners, and of the rich in general, while with us corruption and intimidation can be made use of only by the Government. You will understand that, the circumstances being so different, the electoral institutions of the two countries can hardly be compared.
The electoral system of the constitutional monarchy had one enormous vice, which, in my judgment, was the principal cause of the fall of that monarchy: it rested on too small a body of electors.* The result was that the electoral body soon became nothing but a small bourgeois oligarchy, devoted to its special interests, and separated from the lower classes, for whom it did not care, and who cared nothing for it. The lower classes, therefore, ceased to have the slightest sympathy with its proceedings; and the upper classes, whom it jealously kept out of the administration, despised it, and impatiently endured its supremacy. Nearly the whole nation was thus led to regard the representative system as a mere political contrivance for giving predominance to certain individual interests, and placing power in the hands of a small number of families—an opinion far from correct even then, but favouring, more than any other cause, the advent of a new government.
As to the intimidation or corruption of these electors by powerful individuals, it has always been extremely rare—one might almost say, unknown. Even the Government never employed the coarser kind of corruption—the buying votes by money. But it has scarcely ever ceased to exercise over them a corrupting influence in other ways. To the least honourable electors it offered places and promotion. To the most honest it promised that the “commune” where they lived should receive some of the many boons which our Government is able to confer—such as assistance in repairing the churches, schools, bridges, &c. &c.
This influence on the part of the Government was counterbalanced by the influence of the newspapers, which is very great over the middle classes; and things might have gone on for a long time had it not been for the capital faults which I have already pointed out—the small number of electors and the exclusive preponderance of one class.
The year 1848 threw us into the opposite extreme. It gave us universal suffrage.
It must be admitted that the two general elections conducted under this system were the most honest and unfettered that have been seen in France since 1789. Neither corruption nor intimidation of any kind affected them. Intimidation was indeed attempted by the Government, and by different factions, but without success. The great number of the electors, and especially their collection in great masses in the electoral colleges, rendered the action of the Government absolutely unfelt. On the contrary, the system restored, in most provinces, to the clergy and to the rich proprietors, more political influence than they had possessed for sixty years—and they nowhere abused it. This became apparent when the genuineness of the contested returns came to be discussed in the Assembly. It was unanimously recognised that the influence of the clergy and of the great landowners had been considerable. But there was scarcely a single complaint of the peasants having been bullied or bribed; the truth being, that in a country where wealth was as much distributed as in France, intimidation or corruption by individuals can never be pushed very far under any electoral system.
The influence, therefore, which was exercised over the peasant by the rich proprietor was entirely a moral one. The peasant, himself a proprietor, and alarmed for his property by the doctrines of the communists, applied for guidance to men who were more enlightened than himself, and who had still larger proprietary interests at stake. I cannot say that this would have always continued to be the case. I merely state the facts which I witnessed; and I affirm that the conservative majority, which predominated first in the Constituent and then in the Legislative Assembly, contained more rich and independent landed proprietors—more of what you in England term country gentlemen—than any of the chambers in which I have sat during the last thirteen years.
But I cannot too much impress upon you the extent to which the results of universal suffrage are with us, and probably everywhere, modified by the manner in which the colleges, or, in other words, the electoral assemblies, are constituted.
When the electors are taken from their villages and collected in masses of one, two, or three thousands in the capital of the canton, as was the case under the first law of 1848, or even in numbers less great but still considerable, as was enacted by the second, they are little influenced by the clergy, or by the rich proprietors, and scarcely at all by the Government. On the other hand, when the election takes place in a village, by only fifty or sixty, or even a hundred electors, the parson, and, if there still be one, a rich landowner, can act with effect, and the influence of the Government becomes powerful.
As to your question with respect to the light in which electoral corruption is regarded by the people, I answer, that corruption especially by money is disgraceful. An elector who sold his vote would be compared to a witness who sold his evidence. In a contest, of which I knew the details, a candidate opposed to one of my friends was accused of having attempted to bribe; the accusation was groundless, but it did him irreparable mischief; his friends were afraid to vote for him lest they should be supposed to have been bribed. In fact, on the subject of elections, our population has still the advantages and disadvantages of political youth. It is inexperienced, weak, sometimes excited, but honest. It is bribed not by money, but by false doctrines, by the promise of imaginary social progress, by flattering its envy and its hatred.
Whatever may have been the electoral systems in France during the last sixty years, the candidate has never been put to expense. I have been elected five times; it never cost me a penny. Not that under the monarchy or under the republic the situation of a deputy was without its value; it was, perhaps, more sought for than in any country in the world. For it led not only to the great places, but, what was a great evil, to the inferior ones. Yet such were our feelings that an election cost nothing.
You wish for my opinion as to the election of candidates by lists.* Among its advantages in a free country is not that it prevents canvassing; arrangements are always made with more or less formality for designating the candidates and preparing their elections. The heads of parties meet or correspond, and make out lists which are afterwards profusely distributed. These arrangements resemble on a smaller scale those that are made in the United States for the election of a president. The advantages which we have really derived from election by lists are these:—First, the deputy need care less about any given portion of his constituents. He depends on the general opinion of the department, and may without danger neglect the interest of a canton or of a family. Secondly, it raises the scale of eligible candidates. It is difficult for a man not well before the public to obtain 100,000 or 150,000 votes. Great national, or at least great departmental, notoriety is necessary to decide the suffrages of so numerous a body. Men of merely cantonal celebrity—to use a French expression, les illustrations de clocher—have less chance under this system than under any other.
But observe that the utility of voting by lists depends on circumstances. It is greatest when the electors are few, and are taken from a single class; it is then necessary in order to prevent the deputies from being the obscure representatives of little coteries. I have no doubt that if it had been adopted before 1848, it would have much diminished the inconveniences of the then existing system.
There remains your question as to the efficacy of ballot. It may be said that ballot does not give absolute secrecy; but that it much facilitates secrecy no one in France ever thought of denying. For the last sixty years the party which was in the minority, and indeed all parties, clamorously demanded it when it was not established, and defended it energetically whenever it was. The electors have always considered its preservation as a safeguard of the highest importance. How could there be such a general agreement if the institution were worthless? In fact, no side attacks or has attacked it in France, except the Government—that is to say, the only power which occupies with us a position similar to that held by your aristocracy, and that is able to take advantage, by intimidation or corruption, of the vote being made public. I must add that the present Government has not abolished it, at least directly. . .
I will leave off now; my hand is tired, and I should think that your attention must be so. My bad writing is in itself enough to make the reading of this letter a labour. By writing it I wished at least to give you a proof of my eagerness to merit the confidence which you have placed in me, and also to thank you for the pleasure that I have derived from the perusal of your volumes. I received them only on the day before I left Paris; this prevented my finding out Lady Stanhope, and thanking her for taking the trouble of bringing them for me.
TO M. FRESLON.
St. Cyr, August 10, 1853.
Again many thanks, dear friend, for your information and for your news. The former was very useful, and the latter very interesting.
I found in the public library of Tours most of the books which you mention. . . .
My search into the state papers has already taught me much on the subject of the administrative powers of the judicial tribunals before 1789. Two things I chiefly remarked; first, that these powers gradually became more restricted as the administrative power, properly so called, grew more active and more enlightened. The rights of the tribunal of justice, not being exclusive, and being subordinate to the Administration, as represented by the Conseil d’ Étât, it could act only when the latter had not already acted. The more the Administration wished to extend its natural sphere, the more contracted became by degrees that of the tribunals.
Secondly, one is struck, when one studies these documents, with the continual interference of the Government in matters of justice. The lawyers who write on administration tell us, that the greatest vice of the internal administration under the Ancien Régime was, that the judges interfered with the executive. One might as reasonably complain, that the Government interfered with the judges. The only change is that we have improved upon the Ancien Régime in the first respect, and imitated it in the last. Till now I had been foolish enough to believe that what we call la Justice Administrative (justice administered by the Government) was a creation of Napoleon’s. It is only a part of the Ancien Régime which we have preserved. And the principle that even in a case of a contract, that is of a regular engagement formally entered into between an individual and the State, the cause is to be tried by the State—this axiom, which is unknown to most modern nations, was held as sacred by an intendant* of the Ancien Régime as it can be in our day by the personage who most resembles him—a prefect.
In reading the correspondence of the ministers of Louis XV. with their subordinates, you see a crowd of little embryo professors of imperial administrative law. So true is it, that the better one is acquainted with the Ancien Régime the more one finds that the Revolution has been far from doing either all the good or all the harm that is supposed, and that it may be said rather to have disturbed than to have altered society. This truth springs up in all directions as soon as one ploughs the ancient soil.
Ampère and Corcelle are with us. I need not tell you how often we talk of you. Rivet came three weeks ago. Adieu.
TO THE COMTE DE CIRCOURT.
St. Cyr, August 13, 1853.
I reproach myself, dear M. de Circourt, for not having yet answered your long and interesting letter. I should have done so the next day if I had followed my inclination. I could not help reading the chief portions of it to Madame de Tocqueville and to Ampère, who is staying with us. It was decided that I should thank you on behalf of the company. Let me hope that you will not allow our correspondence to end here, and that you will not refuse to tell me now and then what is going on in the world, of which I am now as ignorant as if I lived in a desert island, or at the bottom of the cistern in which M. Jaubert passed six months.
Still, I do not complain much of my solitude; I find it better for my mind than the frivolous, barren excitement of Parisian society, where one hears nothing but far-off, and often untrue, rumours of what takes place in the political world. I lived too long in the centre of affairs not to tire very soon of on-dits. But I shall never be tired of hearing judgments on the past, and conjectures as to future events, when these conjectures and judgments are the workings of a mind in whose intelligence and perspicacity I place the fullest confidence.
We have, at last, established ourselves here comfortably. We have a good house, well situated, exposed neither to wind nor damp, in short, a proper habitation for a sick man. I hope that I shall succeed in regaining my health here. My work is sufficient to employ, yet not to fatigue my mind. I advance, therefore, very slowly; but my first object was to grow strong again; and besides, why should I hurry? Public life is certainly not likely soon again to be open to me; and in the new existence created for me by the event of December, 1852, I ought rather to fear than to desire to come to the end of my book.
Your letter, which I began by praising, has one great defect. You do not tell me enough about Madame de Circourt—what she has been doing since I last had the pleasure of seeing her; how she spends her time in the country. All these details would have interested me. Ampère desires me to say that he feels much gratified by your invitation. I think that he would like nothing better than to accept it; but I acknowledge that I oppose your cause with all my might. I hope that we shall keep him till the end of September. Pray forgive me for serving you so ill. My excuse is that I foresee a long separation from my excellent friend. Ampère, who, as you know, shares the travelling propensities of the swallow, will, I think, spend the autumn, and probably the winter, in Italy.
TO M. DE CORCELLE.
St. Cyr, near Tours, September 17, 1853:
I have been often thinking and speaking of you, my dear friend, during the last fortnight. I can explain my silence only by the soporific effect produced by a life so uniform that at last it never occurs to me to do anything that I have not been doing the day before. It is a voluntary treadmill, in which I think only of lifting up one foot after the other till the wheel stops.
To answer your friendly questions, I will tell you at once that since you left us my health has been in a more satisfactory state, and my doctors continue to assure me that I shall be entirely cured. On this last point I am absolutely incredulous, and I no more expect to see my own perfect recovery than I do that of France. Our disorders are of too long standing; and all that I have learned to desire for both is a tolerable state of health. You see that as I grow older I grow more moderate in my wishes.
I have been reading your letter over again, and it seems to me that you have mistaken the sense of what I said when we talked over my new book, which is not surprising, for it is difficult to explain clearly the plan of so vast an undertaking as that which I contemplate.
I told you that it was not my intention to suggest a remedy for the state into which the Ancien Régime, the Republic, and the Empire, have thrown our country. This is true: my fixed resolution is to stop before I set foot on this ground, to consider it only from afar, and not to try to write a book of temporary interest. But it by no means follows that no clear results are to be drawn from the historical study on which I am at work, that it is to give only a vague notion of the opinions and sentiments of the author, and to leave the reader uncertain as to the judgments which he ought to form upon facts, and upon men; on the events themselves, on their causes, and as to the lessons which they teach us. It would be strange, considering that I enter upon this work with decided and often enthusiastic preferences, fixed opinions, and a clear and certain object, if I should leave the reader to float rudderless on the sea of my ideas and of his own.
I think that the books which have most roused men to reflection, and have had most influence upon their opinions and their actions, are those in which the author does not tell them dogmatically what they are to think, but puts them into the way of finding the truth for themselves. If God grants me time and strength enough to finish my task, you may be sure that no one will have any doubts as to my object.
You tell me that institutions form only half of my subject. I go farther still; I say that they do not form so much as half. You are well enough acquainted with my opinions to know that I consider institutions as exercising only a secondary influence over the destinies of man. Would to God that I could believe them to be all-powerful! I should have more hopes for our future; for we might, some day, chance to stumble upon the precious recipe which would cure all our ills, or upon a man acquainted with the nostrum. But, alas! there is no such thing; and I am convinced that the excellence of political societies does not depend upon their laws, but upon what they are prepared to become by the sentiments, principles, and opinions, the moral and intellectual qualities given by nature and education to the men of whom they consist. If this truth does not appear in every part of my book; if it does not induce the reader to apply this lesson continually to himself; if it does not, without pretending to teach, show to him in every page what are the sentiments, opinions, and morals which lead to prosperity and freedom, and what are the vices and errors infallibly opposed to these blessings, I shall not have attained the chief, and I may say the only, object that I have in view.
To turn to another subject: you are, perhaps, right in saying that I attach too much importance in religious matters to an accident—the conduct of the clergy. You must make excuses for the grief, I might almost say the despair, with which the sight of what is now going on affects a man as convinced as I am that the real greatness of mankind must arise from the combined action of liberty and religion; the one to animate, the other to restrain; and whose only political passion, for the last thirty years, has been to bring about this combination. I am far from saying that respect for our religion is not increasing among our countrymen; but, unhappily, this is not the same thing as an increase of religious belief.
My father is to spend a few days with us in the beginning of next month. After this, we shall renounce the society of the living for that of the illustrious dead: books will be our only company. I do not despair, however, of seeing, before next spring, a good friend, like yourself, tear himself from Paris for a short time to pay us a charitable visit. Do I deceive myself?
The world seems to me to be growing narrower and narrower, so as to contain only five or six people, whose society pleases, soothes, or restores me. You are at the head of the list. You may judge, therefore, if I am satisfied with conversing with you for so many months only through the post.
TO THE COMTESSE DE CIRCOURT.
St. Cyr, September 2, 1853.
I shall not be able, Madame, to answer to-day M. de Circourt’s long and interesting letter, but I will not delay thanking you for your kind remembrance of me. It touched me extremely; for there is nothing which I value so highly as the little corner which you permit me to occupy in your heart. The more opportunities I enjoy of seeing you, the more I prize it. I wish only that a still greater intimacy might, in time, give me a chance of enlarging it. Unfortunately, I do not see my way to this at present, for Paris is naturally your headquarters, and I own that it is my intention to make it less and less of mine. I shall certainly return thither every year to rub off the rust of the country, but only for a short time, just long enough to restore the edge of my mind. A few months are enough. This year, indeed, I do not intend to return before the spring. I have certainly made a great sacrifice in establishing myself as I have done this year in the country, away from my own home, in order, if possible, to recover my health by leading a quiet life in an equable and temperate climate. I do not want to have made it for nothing, and therefore I must allow a long period of perfect stillness to succeed the anxious and sometimes painful years that I have given to politics. This peace I find here, uninterrupted even by the petty details of business; for I possess nothing, know nobody, and want nothing in Touraine. We sometimes feel our solitude; but in these times it suits me better than a crowd.
You must have experienced in your travels, Madame, a peculiar sensation on arriving in the morning in a foreign town, where all is new and strange to you—people, language, and customs. You are in a crowd, and yet you are more overpowered by the sense of solitude than if you were in the middle of a forest. This is what often happens to me in the midst of my countrymen and contemporaries. I find that there are scarcely any points of contact left between their modes of feeling and thinking and mine. I have preserved many strong feelings which they have lost; I still love passionately the things to which they have become indifferent; and I have an antipathy which grows stronger and stronger for the things which seem to please them more and more. It is not only the times that are changed, the whole race seems to me to have altered. I feel like one belonging to the old in the midst of the new. From this category I, of course, except certain persons, whose society would be an amends for contact with all the others, if only one could enjoy it. But what society is it that one can enjoy in Paris? In whose drawing-room does not one meet some of the people whom one least cares to see? In whose drawing-room especially is it that the person of whom one sees least is precisely the only one one comes to see?
In this last picture you cannot fail to recognise a drawing-room of your acquaintance. Did I, during the whole of last winter, have as much as five minutes’ conversation with you? Do not, however, from all that I have said, fancy that I am as cross as a bear. I merely say what I should have said to you an hundred times before if I had had more opportunities of seeing you; I mean of seeing you, not of seeing your friends.
Pray keep the secret of my misanthropy, and forgive me for enjoying the life that I lead here—I only wish that it were more productive. Most people would think that I made great use of my retirement. Nothing would be less true. I read a great deal, I live a great deal in the open air, I try to meditate on certain subjects. But as yet, I have not written three lines. Still, I never suffered less from ennui. Shall I confess to you, Madame, that I have gone back to school, and that I am learning a language just as if I were twelve years old? This language is German, which you are so fortunate as to be able to speak, and no doubt speak perfectly, as you do every European language. I have thrown myself valiantly into this abominable literature, where all is strange for a Frenchman—the root, the construction, and the mode of expression; and the absurd part of it is, that this ungrateful study interests me. I indeed plunge into it with the idea that it is not only useful, but indispensable for my ulterior objects.
Ampère left us two days ago. I really cannot tell you how sorry I was to see him go. No one that does not know Ampère intimately, and that has not lived with him for some time in the country, can have any idea of the pleasant, lively, and natural turn of his mind, and of the more solid qualities in his character.
Of course, you see Madame Swetchine. Do not forget to remember me to her before you leave Paris. Her extreme kindness to me last winter created a deep impression on me, and has made me regard her with an affection equal to the admiration which I have always had for her talents. They are as remarkable as her goodness, and this is not saying little.
TO M. FRESLON.
St. Cyr, September 23, 1853.
I regret, my dear friend, that you did not receive my last letter. . . .
My work, in which you interest yourself, goes on, but very slowly. . . . When one examines, as I am doing at Tours, the archives of an ancient provincial government, one finds a thousand reasons for hating the Ancien Régime, but few for loving the Revolution; for one sees that the Ancien Régime was rapidly sinking under the weight of years and a gradual change of ideas and of manners, so that with a little patience and good conduct it might have been reformed without destroying indiscriminately all that was good in it with all that was bad. It is curious to see how different was the government of 1780 from that of 1750. The laws are the same, the rules seem to be the same, the same principles are professed, on the surface everything is the same; but at the bottom, the methods, the habits, and the spirit—all are changed. One does not recognise the government or the governed. The Revolution broke out not when evils were at their worst, but when reform was beginning. Half-way down the staircase we threw ourselves out of the window, in order to get sooner to the bottom. Such, in fact, is the common course of events. It is not when a system is at its worst that it is broken up, but when it begins to improve; when it allows men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate with one another, and to measure the extent of their rights and of their grievances by comparing their present with their past state. The weight, though lessened, has become intolerable.
About the fifteenth of October, I propose to be in my winter quarters. Then I hope to be seriously at work. I shall put aside my books, I shall cease to rummage old papers, I shall begin at length to write and to work. Up to the present time I have only made preparations. In this long novitiate I lose patience and nerve. I shall throw upon paper, well or ill, the first chapter; and the result will show me whether what I have in my head is a great work, or merely the conception of one. I must succeed in this first attempt, that I may have courage to go on. There is nothing to be gained by looking at what is passing, it disturbs even my solitary labours.
You tell me to keep up my courage; it is the advice of a brave man, but how can I follow it?
TO M. RIVET.
St Cyr, October 23, 1853.
Many thanks, my dear friend, for your kind and excellent letter. Always write to me in that way, and believe that nothing which concerns you—affairs, feelings, interests, relations or friends—is indifferent to me. Such is always the case in true friendship. That which I have for you is indeed true, and it is based on the only real foundation, esteem. Of all the men whom I have ever met, you certainly are the one who possesses, in the highest degree, honour and delicacy of feeling, joined with a talent for overcoming or avoiding all the little difficulties created by the opposing passions and interests of men; and this is the real art of living. These qualities, which ought always to go together, co-exist so seldom, that one wonders when one finds them in the same person.
I have nearly finished the preparatory studies of which I spoke to you in one of your visits, and I think that I am now capable of giving a course of lectures on administrative law under the Ancien Régime. The thing to find out now is, what use I can make of these materials, which are useless rubbish if I cannot build with them something new. I shall begin actually to write in about ten days. It is then that I shall ask for your prayers, for then will be decided the formidable question, whether I can turn my future life to any account.
I dare not rely on your promise of coming to visit us in this retreat. All that I can say is, that you will be joyfully welcomed. Adieu.
TO M. GUSTAVE DE BEAUMONT.
St. Cyr, November 3, 1853.
. . . I authorized you beforehand to keep “Haxthausen” long enough to read him carefully. The book deserves attention from everybody, and especially from you; for though it will weary you to death, it is full of instruction, and especially as to the Selavonic races. In the manners which he describes, there are some curious characteristics of that race which you ought to know.
——— has just sent me a thick book, full of research and talent, in which he endeavours to prove that all that takes place in the world may be explained by the differences of race. I do not believe a word of it; and yet I think that there is in every nation, whether in consequence of race or of an education which has lasted for centuries, some peculiarity, tenacious if not permanent, which combines with all the events that befall it, and is seen both in good and in bad fortune, in every period of its history. This is especially true of the half-civilized nations which have long lived apart. To speak of them properly, it is necessary to thoroughly discern the features which distinguish them from the other members of the human family.
There is also in “Haxthausen” a picture which would alone be enough to make up for the nuisance of reading his book—that of a people still in the leading-strings of serfdom and of property in common, and yet enjoying, to a certain extent, the institutions, and even in some respects sharing the spirit, of the democratic and highly civilized times in which we live. You see them ascripti glebœ, as ours were in the sixteenth century, and yet they suffer from the perpetual restlessness of the Americans. The real reason why this author is so tiresome, is not so much his prolix, diffuse, and fatiguing style, as his subject. Among these Russian lower classes everything is absolutely uniform—opinions, laws, customs, and even the smallest external details. It is an America without liberty or intelligence, a frightful species of democracy.
TO M. FRESLON.
St. Cyr, November 3, 1853.
I was, indeed, rather uneasy about you, my dear friend, when I received your last letter.
Next week, I at length shall give up poring over books and old papers, and begin to write. I assure you that I anticipate this moment with anxiety and even dread. Shall I find what I seek? Can the subject which I have chosen yield the book that I dream of? and am I capable of realizing this dream? What should I do if I found that I had mistaken vague ideas for definite thoughts; true, but commonplace notions, for new and original discoveries? If I failed in this attempt, it would upset all my plans for the future; I should not know what to be at, for I have never been able to live for living’s sake. I have always felt compelled to do something, or at least to fancy that I am doing something.
It is very kind of you to tell me that the public taste for books is returning; that they are again beginning to exercise some influence. I own that I like to hear you say this, though I do not believe it. My impression is, that as yet authors have no public in France. Our present state in this respect is unlike anything one finds in the history of the last 200 years; and of all the changes that time has effected in our habits and character, this is one of the most extraordinary. In the most literary nation in Europe, in that which has convulsed ideas and convulsed the world by means of abstract ideas taken from books, a generation has risen up, taking absolutely no interest in anything which is written, attaching no importance to anything but events, and only to a few facts—those which are evidently, directly, and immediately connected with physical well-being. Of all the aristocracies, that which has been most utterly destroyed by the Revolution is the aristocracy of literature.
TO THE COMTESSE DE CIRCOURT.
St. Cyr, November 26, 1853.
You have then returned to “Les Bruyères,” Madame, although it is winter. I do not pity you much. There are many reasons why you need not fear solitude; and, besides, can there be any solitude with Paris only seven miles off and so many friends?
I say nothing about myself, Madame, simply because there is nothing to say. My life passes in a uniformity, which, though pleasant, furnishes no matter for writing. We generally finish the evening by reading aloud; but there are so few books that are agreeable to read! We have been yawning over some memoirs which you must know—those of the Baroness of Oberkirk, who, they say, delighted the Faubourg St. Germain and the Faubourg St. Honoré. They are worth less than nothing; they are full of all the littlenesses of the Ancien Régime, without one of its great features; of its frivolity, without its wit; and one feels in every page the senile imbecility which is the fate of worn-out aristocracies reduced to mere drawing-room coteries, from having had the guidance of men and of affairs. And this is the only book which, according to the booksellers, has created any sensation during the last six months.
Those who think that, by turning aside men’s attention from important subjects, you can enable them to act more vigorously in the small field which is left to them, apply to the human mind the laws of matter. Steam-power or water-power moves small wheels all the better when the large wheels are out of gear; but our minds do not obey the laws of mechanics.
Adieu! Madame. I have written a stupid letter, but what else can you expect from a hermit?
TO MRS. GROTE.
St. Cyr, November 22, 1853.
I am determined to write to you, my dear Mrs. Grote, and yet God knows that in my solitude I have absolutely nothing to say to my friends, except that I have a great affection for them; a fact which, perhaps, would be very interesting to some of them, but which cannot have the merit of novelty for you. You cannot need to be told how great is the friendship with which we regard you. I have made up my mind, however, to write to you, though I have nothing to tell, because it annoys me to be so long without hearing of you from yourself. My news of you has all been indirect. Be so charitable then as to give us some. Do not treat us quite as if we were dead and buried, although there would be sufficient excuse for doing so. I myself am often tempted to exclaim like the drunkard in La Fontaine’s fable, who, waking up suddenly in a dark silent cavern, cries out, “I wonder whether my wife is a widow.”
Still you must not pity us too much; for though we have no noise here, we have plenty of light. We live in full sunshine, in a little cottage situated on the banks of the Loire, with the towers of Tours in the distance. We have avoided knowing any of our neighbours, as we did not wish to make acquaintances among the natives, recollecting that provincial society is an exchange of solitude for ennui. Many of our friends have taken the trouble of coming to see us, and this has been enough to keep up our taste for our fellow-creatures. The life I lead seems to have improved my health; and that of my wife, which had been so shaken, is, I hope, re-established. Our intention, therefore, is to brave another winter here, and to return to Paris only for a short time next spring, before the tour which, as you are aware, we are contemplating in Germany; a tour for which I shall not start without communicating with you again, and asking for your valuable advice and introductions.
You will fancy, that these four months of retirement must have been of great service to my book; they have been of very little. I have read and meditated, but I have not written, and I ask myself how so many hours can have slipped away. It has been with me, as they say is the case with prisoners, who see so much leisure before them, that they put off what they have to do till next day, and reach the term of their imprisonment, or of their life, without so much as having begun the work which they would easily have finished in the midst of the bustle of the world. However, I hope that such will not be my fate, and I already feel, at times, an appetite for writing which is a good symptom.
I hope that I shall not leave this place till I have made a fair start in my work. But how difficult it is to begin! The society which preceded the French Revolution is almost as difficult to reproduce and to understand as the time before the Flood. The convulsion of our Revolution has left nothing but fragments, now covered over by a fresh soil, which must be dug up one by one to recompose from one’s imagination a world which has for ever perished. When I consider all the things that I have learnt by these preliminary studies, and all the thoughts suggested by them, it seems to me that the chief deficiency of those who have attempted to write upon the French Revolution, and even on the present time, has been the want of clear and true views of the preceding period. I think that I shall have this advantage over them, and I hope to turn it to account.
Pray remember us to Mr. Grote. I brought his last volume with me, and we read it aloud in the evenings with great enjoyment. Do not forget to mention me to Chevalier Bunsen, when you see him; tell him that I am beginning his “Hippolytus,” which seems to be interesting, though the language sometimes puzzles me. Some parts are very hard, especially for a schoolboy like myself.
In conclusion, Madame, and this is the most important and urgent request of all, think of us at least now and then—very often if you can. Keep a little of your friendship for us, and believe that there is nothing on which we set so much store as to retain our small share of your affection and memory.
TO THE COMTE DE CIRCOURT.
St. Cyr, December 7, 1853.
I was extremely sorry, dear M. de Circourt, to hear of the sad event which forced you to set off for Franche-Comté almost immediately after your return from your long journey in the South of France.
I brought with me from Paris, and I have nearly finished—I say nearly, for such a book is a serious undertaking—one that I think you recommended to me, Haxthausen, on the agricultural classes in Russia. Nothing can be more wearisome nor more instructive. The author, without having much talent, is an honest witness, who has had the good sense to consider the only thing in Russia which is at all interesting or has any dignity, and the only one that nobody goes to see—the Russian lower classes. I found in his book a mass of facts about which I knew nothing, and which seem to me to throw much light on a little known part of Europe—if, indeed, it can be called Europe. I do not wish to abuse Russia to you, for you have an excellent reason for thinking well of that country;* therefore I shall confine myself to saying, that I never felt less inclined to take up my abode in the Empire of the Czars than after reading Haxthausen. Ennui would make it intolerable—ennui breathes in every description of it. Monotony, even in liberty, is tiresome; what must it be in slavery? What must be those villages exactly alike, with inhabitants exactly alike, employed in exactly the same way, with minds all equally asleep? I own to you, in confidence, that I should prefer barbarism in all its disorder.
Just as I had finished writing to Madame de Circourt the other day, I received from her the kindest and most friendly letter conceivable. I should have written to her again on the spot to thank her for it, if I had not feared to inflict too much of myself upon her by sending another despatch so soon.
TO M. DE CORCELLE.
St. Cyr, December 31, 1853.
I wish to spend one of the last hours in this year in writing to you, my dear friend. I rejoice in knowing you to be so agreeably occupied and surrounded. May God grant to you many such days.
Our health continues good, in spite of the severity of the weather. When I got up on the day before yesterday, my thermometer was sixteen degrees and a half below zero. I never saw either in Sicily or in Africa more brilliant nights—it was a sky for an astronomer, a firmament to please a Chaldee, and abominably cold. I wonder if it is as bad in your part of the country. Amid all these glories of the sky, my meditations were disturbed by the thoughts of the numbers of the poor—shivering and starving upon the earth. This cold produces a great increase of misery, which was already great enough.
As I could not carry my whole library to this out-of-the-way retreat, I have brought at least one volume of the works of all our great writers. Their society is noble and elevating. I read the other day Bourdaloue’s sermon on “False Conscience.” I was delighted. More, perhaps, might be said on the mysterious and awful phenomenon which it is the object of this sermon to describe; but all that the preacher says of it is true and profound. What admirable language! what consummate art! It is impossible to study him sufficiently. The skill with which he varies his expressions, so as never to let the attention of the audience flag, is really marvellous. Where could Bourdaloue, who had lived so long in the provinces, have acquired all these delicate artistic touches; and besides other more essential merits, the gift of choosing the right word (there never is more than one), and thus, if I may use the expression, of pouring out the whole contents of his thought? He is as vivid as he is perspicuous.
I have also read Bossuet’s sermons. Till now I knew little of this portion of his writings, if, indeed, one can call them writings. They are improvisations, in which his genius, less hemmed in, seems often rough, and almost wild, but more vigorous, and perhaps more extraordinary, than in any of his other works.
I am quite of your opinion as to the impertinence of the “Progressive Catholicism.” It is detestable, let alone its doctrines. A religion must be absolutely true or false. How can it make progress? As you truly say, there may be progress in the application, not in the dogma. Besides, the word “progressif” must have been suggested to a French writer by the Devil himself, it is such bad French. What a face the illustrious dead, in whose society I live, would have made at it!
Here I am, dear friend, at the end of my paper; but I cannot leave off without even warmer expressions of my regard than usual, in honour of the New Year. Our good wishes to all around you, and a kiss to little François.
[*]Essays on Political and Social Science.
[*]Mr. Senior’s notes of his conversations with M. de Tocqueville.
[†]Essays on Political and Social Science, by W. R. Greg. London: 1853.
[*]There were about 240,000.—Tr.
[*]The French expression is scrutin de liste. It means the election of all the deputies for a department, sometimes as many as ten, in one list, instead of the ten being elected separately, one by each arrondissement.—Tr.
[*]Governor of a district, and responsible only to the Crown.—Tr.
[*]Madame de Circourt is Russian.—Tr.