Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO W. R. GREG, ESQ. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 2
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TO W. R. GREG, ESQ. - 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 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.
[†]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.