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Conversations. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior from 1834-1859, vol. 1 (1834-1851) 
Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior from 1834-1859, ed. M.C.M. Simpson, in Two Volumes (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1872). Vol. I.
Part of: Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior from 1834-1859, 2 vols.
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Paris, Rue de la Paix, May 3, 1851.—We left Italy on the 27th of April, and passed the 30th at Marseilles, with the Palmers, eminent machine makers. They complained bitterly of the commercial state of France. They merely execute orders: as the wants of the purchasers of machines are peculiar, each man requiring his own form, construction, and power, they cannot accumulate stock. Ever since 1841 those who ought, and used, to be their customers have been without confidence in the security of persons and property, and therefore have suspended as far as was possible all expensive operations. What is the real danger, they can seldom explain, but they keep repeating, ‘Ça ne peut pas durer;’ ‘Quelque chose arrivera;’ and these indistinct fears keep them inactive. Before 1848 they kept 1,000 workmen, now they engage only 400, and have the greatest difficulty in keeping these employed.
Rue de la Paix, May 4.—I went early in the morning to see Tocqueville, and found him sitting with Beaumont. I related my conversation with the Palmers at Marseilles.
‘The Marseillais are quite right,’ said Beaumont, ‘in believing that “ça ne peut pas durer;” but they are wrong in the importance they attach to a revolution. A revolution no longer interrupts the ordinary progress of society. The whole machinery of Government continues to work much in the same way, whatever be the changes in the moving power which directs it. Justice, police, revenue—in short, the whole interior administration for which Government is instituted, go on by force of the original impulse given to them under the Convention, and under the Empire; just as the human heart beats, and the human lungs play, independently of the will of their possessor. This is the most consoling result of our recent experience. If, as it seems probable, we are to pass the rest of our lives among revolutions, it is some comfort that a revolution is no longer the period of destruction, or even of disorganisation, that it once was.
‘The political horizon,’ said Tocqueville, ‘is darker, that is to say, obscurer, than I ever knew it to be. At Sorrento I thought that I could see a little before me. Since I am in Paris I give up all attempts at prophecy or even conjecture. One thing only is certain, that a legal solution of the questions that will have to be decided next year is impossible. The President will not consent to consider himself ineligible. Even if he were to do so, his friends would not act on that supposition. He will certainly be on the list of candidates, and the result perhaps most to be desired, or least to be deprecated, is that he should be re-elected by a majority so large as to be considered to speak the voice of the nation, and therefore to legalise its own act though opposed to the existing law. It must be remembered that by that time the new Assembly will have been elected, and the present Assembly therefore, though technically possessed of its full powers, will have lost its moral influence, and will be unable to oppose the public will.
‘But even this result, though less formidable than the simultaneous change of the holders of all executive power and of all legislative power, will be an event of which the certain mischief will be great, the possible mischief enormous. What will be the effect on men’s minds of a violation of the Constitution deliberately made by the nation, at the instigation of its chief magistrate? Who will respect a Constitution which the people has set aside in one of its most important provisions? That Constitution, bad as it is, is our only bulwark. Nothing else stands between us and either anarchy or despotism. The President is formidable enough as he is. What will he be when his mere election will have been a triumph over the only restraint that keeps him in—the Constitution? It is difficult even now to protect property from systematic plunder, and authority from organised revolt. What will be the difficulty after the Executive itself for many months has been employing thousands of agents to urge the people to break the law and has succeeded? Every exit seems besieged by some frightful spectre.
‘At present there is a lull; parties are preparing for the discussion as to the revision of the Constitution, which cannot come on until the 28th.’
May 8.—Mrs. Grote and I drank tea with Tocqueville. We talked of V.’s1 theory as to the unfitness of France for a mixed Government.
‘I do not see,’ said Tocqueville, ‘why what has been, should not be again. We endured a mixed Government for thirty-three years, why should we be incapable of enduring one now?
‘I admit, however, that in order to enable a Government, in which the supreme power is divided, to be permanent; to last, as yours has done, for centuries, the ruling authorities must possess an amount of patience and forbearance which never has been granted to ours, and therefore I do not expect a mixed Government in France to be permanent, that is to say to be uninterrupted. Among thousands of possibilities, that which appears to me the least improbable is, that during the greater part of the next hundred years, France will be subject to a Constitutional Monarchy, from time to time interrupted by a despotic or by a democratic revolution.’
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘the form of mixed Government under which you are living will not last?’
‘Of course,’ he answered, ‘it will not. A despotic monarchy, or a despotic aristocracy, may retain its power for centuries, against the will of its subjects, but an unpopular democracy sounds like a contradiction in terms, and must soon become a contradiction in fact. As soon as the people has found the means of ascertaining and expressing its will, it will select, or accept, or submit to the master whom it prefers to self-government.
‘Those who imposed on us this Constitution knew that it would be unpopular; they tried to prolong its existence, first by pre-determining the mode in which it should be altered, and secondly by making that legal mode almost impracticable. Three quarters of the Assembly will not join in the vote, from which a third, perhaps nearly a half, of its members fear much more than they hope.’
‘Will you then break,’ I said, ‘the band which you cannot untie—will you proceed to a revision on a simple majority?’
‘I believe,’ he answered, ‘that the Government will make the attempt—and it was the fear of having to do this that prevented my friends and me from taking office. The danger of such a course is enormously increased by the new electoral law. Under a system of universal suffrage, the new Constituent Assembly could not have been said to be illegally elected. It would really have represented the whole nation. Now it will represent only a minority. Those who wish to resist its acts may proclaim them void, as the acts of a political body doubly illegal—illegally convoked and illegally nominated. The whole conduct and tone of the present administration convinces me that they have considered this risk and are resolved to encounter it. They are bolder than I am.’
Wednesday, May 14.—Before breakfast I sat for some time with Tocqueville. We talked of the ministerial plans.
‘To hope,’ said Tocqueville, ‘for a legal majority of the revision, is childish; though I have no doubt that an actual, and even a considerable one will be obtained. But I do not believe that that majority will sanction a revision in defiance of the law. Nor do I think that the Government will make the attempt without the sanction of the Assembly. It would be a “politique à se casser le cou, même à se faire couper le cou.” If the President attempts it, he will find himself in Vincennes.’
‘What then,’ I asked, ‘will the Government do?’
‘Nothing,’ he answered; ‘it will drift down the current, and that current is carrying us towards a rock, towards a Rouge Assembly.
‘I have always told you,’ he continued, ‘that there is no danger of a Rouge Assembly unless the Government create it. This Government is creating it. Its administration is a blister to the country. Everything is done that can irritate the friends of progress and even of liberty.
‘Faucher1 is a man of great honesty, great courage, and great knowledge—except the knowledge of men. He is active, obstinate, and injudicious. Such men are the ruin of a ministry, indeed of a party.’
‘What are the faults,’ I asked, ‘to which you refer when you describe this as an irritating Government?’
‘In this country,’ he answered, ‘the whole nature of the internal administration depends on the impulse and direction given to it by its chiefs.
‘According to the instructions of the minister, any given law is executed loosely and indulgently, or strictly, or not at all. Under Faucher all is rigour and vigour. All the strings are stretched to the utmost. National guards are disbanded. Mayors are dismissed. Journals are suspended. The hand of Government is everywhere felt, and everywhere presses heavily.’
Saturday, May 17.—I found Tocqueville with us this afternoon when I returned from the Duc de Broglie’s.
He asked me what were the Duc de Broglie’s views,1 and was glad to hear that he was determined to stand by the Republic.
‘The Monarchical parties,’ he said, ‘are contemptible; the Legitimists are hated and feared by nine-tenths of the people; the Orleanists are a set of generals without an army; the Bonapartists have an army but no leaders.’
But he does not share the Duke’s expectation that on the question of revision the minority will yield.
‘It might yield,’ he said, ‘if the majority were compact and earnest; it might yield if the majority were cordially supported by the nation. But the nation is divided; it knows that the Constitution is faulty, but it is not sure that it will be exchanged for anything better. It would see with pleasure a few points selected for amendment, but it looks forward with terror to a new Constituent Assembly which may avow principles which were with difficulty rejected in 1848; which may bring back le droit au travail and le droit au secours. The majority shares these fears, and though it will vote for the revision, because it would be unable to justify to its constituents a refusal to amend what it admits to be defective, a large portion of it will not be sorry that the legal majority is not obtained.’
‘But why,’ I said, ‘not vote for a restricted revision, for the covering only of what experience has shown to be palpable blots?’
‘Because,’ he answered, ‘even a respectable majority cannot be obtained for the purpose. The instant you come to details, each party looks to its own interests, and there is scarcely a point on which even three out of five agree. I own that I am inclined to think that one of the least objectionable parts of our Constitution is the difficulty which it throws in the way of change. The framers foresaw that the period of revision would be one of great danger, and they wisely endeavoured to postpone it, at least until the experiment of the Republic should have been made. This has not yet been done; for a Constitution which all who administer it are striving to overthrow, cannot be said to have been fairly tried. This general desire for revision is not the result of an appreciation of the merits and defects of the Constitution—it is the restlessness of a sick man who wishes to turn in his bed. All parties seem convinced that the revision will produce some form of Monarchy. Hence the violence with which it is urged on by the anti-Republicans and opposed by the Montagne. I do not share this conviction. Under our system of voting by lists, a compact minority which concentrates all its votes on its own candidates, has a great chance of beating a divided majority which supports as many candidates as it contains factions. I should not be surprised at seeing Rouge representatives from many of the departments on which the anti-Republican parties now rely. So clearly do I see the dangers of the revision, that I could not bring myself to vote for it, if I saw any other less dangerous course. But danger surrounds us on every side. Great and general as the alarm is, I believe it to be less than that which is justified by our situation.
‘The Constitution,’ he added, ‘with all its defects might be endurable, if we could only believe in its permanence. But we read History. We see that republican institutions have never lasted in France, and we infer that those which we have now must be short-lived. This reading of History is our bane. If we could forget the past, we might apply a calm impartial judgment to the present. But we are always thinking of precedents. Sometimes we draw them from our own history, sometimes from yours. Sometimes we use the precedent as an example, sometimes as a warning. But as the circumstances under which we apply it always differ materially from those under which it originally took place, it almost always misleads us.
‘We indicted Louis XVI. for conspiracy against the nation, because you had indicted Charles I. We substituted Louis Philippe for Charles X. as you had substituted Mary for James.
‘Louis XVI. believed that Charles I. had lost his crown and his life by raising his standard at Edge Hill. So he tried non-resistance. Charles X. saw that his brother’s submission was fatal, and had recourse to the ordonnances and to his army. Louis Philippe recollected the fate of Charles X. and forbad his troops to act. Thus the pendulum oscillates, and generally oscillates wrong.’
Thursday, May 22.—Before breakfast I called on Tocqueville. We talked of the prospects of Louis Napoleon.
‘They have become far less favourable,’ said Tocqueville, ‘during the last six months, and are darkening every day.
‘There are three modes only in which he can attempt to retain power. One, of course, is through the revision of the Constitution; but this is not practicable, unless the state of public feeling not only changes, but runs in a direction opposite to its present current. The Chamber will not by the legal majority vote the revision, and will not, in the absence of that majority, sanction the revision.
‘Another is a coup d’état. He may summon a Constituent body in defiance both of the Constitution and of the Assembly. This too would fail; the national guards and the army would side with the Assembly. It is very doubtful whether the Assembly and the President together could effect a coup d’état. Neither of them could do so in opposition to the other.
‘The last means is to be re-elected, though an illegal candidate, by an overwhelming majority. If this be his plan, his whole conduct is opposed to it. For that purpose he ought to be on good terms with the Assembly: he is constantly attacking it. He ought to appear to have no selfish views: all that he does seems to be prompted by personal motives—by vanity as respects the present, by ambition as respects the future. His administration ought to be as conciliatory as the safety of the country will allow it to be. Its roughness and insolence, its arbitrary dismissal of public functionaries, its suspension of newspapers, its interference in elections, the rudeness of its subordinates—in short, its generally irritating and unscrupulous character, are making enemies every day. In my own department, La Manche, one of the most conservative in France, the Rouge candidates, though happily still in a minority, are twice as strong as they were six months ago. Either he does not know what his ministers are doing, or he does not know what the effect of such a system must be.’
‘Though the revision of the Constitution,’ I said, ‘is impossible at present, the time for it must come. Do you think that an Upper Chamber will be one of the elements of the new one?’
‘I hope,’ he continued, ‘that it will be. I voted for it and I shall vote for it again. A single Chamber seems to me to be a bad instrument of legislation. Still, however, as an antagonistic force, as a means of keeping in check the enormous power which we have given to our executive, it is more efficient than a double Chamber. I think that the Assembly has resisted the encroachments of the President better than could have been done by two Houses, each employing only a portion of the supreme legislative authority.’
‘I suppose,’ I said, ‘that you will in time return to Hereditary Monarchy.’
‘It would be rash,’ he answered, ‘to say that we shall not, but I do not see my way to it. The Fusion does not gain ground. In fact, what is called Fusion by the Orleanists is simply going over to the Legitimist side; for what do they get for the party which they call their own? They offer to make Henri V. King; and what is he to do for them in return? To acknowledge that the Comte de Paris is his cousin and heir—which will not be more certain, nor more notorious than it was before. The Anti-Fusionists of the Orleans party hate the Fusionists more bitterly even than they do the Legitimists.’
‘What are Thiers’ views?’ I asked.
‘His conduct,’ answered Tocqueville, ‘is inexplicable. He is attacking the President, the Republicans, and the Legitimists with a violence which, if his power were equal to his animosity, would end in bringing on some great catastrophe. His opposition to the Fusionists may perhaps be explained, for he sees Guizot among them, and you may often predict what will be the conduct of Thiers or of Guizot, if you know what the other will do. But knowing, as he must do, that the immediate restoration of the Orleanist branch is impossible, he must, one would think, know that his attacks on every other means of government must, if they could succeed, produce anarchy.’
May 23.—Z. paid me his promised visit.1
The Tocquevilles drank tea with us, the first time that either of them had ventured out in the evening.
I repeated my conversation with Z.
‘I think,’ said Tocqueville, ‘that Z. is too confident as to the maintenance of the law of the 31st of May. It is impossible to deny that that law is inconsistent with a Constitution which professes to rest on universal suffrage. It is impossible to deny that in many places, especially in the country, it has worked exceedingly ill; that its obscurity has frequently occasioned it to be misinterpreted, and not seldom has enabled the persons entrusted with the register to admit or reject claims according to the politics of the claimant; and that it has disfranchised many hundreds of thousands on technical grounds. The pressure on the Assembly for its repeal will be great. The Montagne however, by its intemperance, is doing all it can to force the Assembly to retain its law as a point of honour. That party is probably not unwilling that so irritating a grievance should be kept alive. But the decision may not rest with the Assembly. It is true that if the President were to attempt a coup d’état for an obviously selfish purpose, he would fail. But I am not sure that he would fail if he were to try a popular coup d’état. It is not easy to resist the combined action of the mob and the executive.
‘The new electoral law is eminently unfavourable to the prolongation of his power; it disfranchises his supporters, and it will prevent his re-election from being the work of the nation. It is a favourite too with his enemy the Assembly. There are strong reasons for his striving to get rid of it by force; and he is quite rash enough to make the attempt.’
Tocqueville was amused by Z.’s enumeration of the concessions made by the Legitimists, and would not admit that the Orleanists gave up nothing.
‘It is true,’ he said, ‘that they have no legal claims to the Crown. It is true that they have few friends; and it follows that they have no immediate chance of success. I foresee no possible combination of events which during the next three or four years would enable them to mount the throne to the exclusion of Henri V. But it is not true that they have no prospects, no avenir. If they have fewer friends than Henri V., they have fewer enemies. They offer to the French people a form of Government which suits us far better than a Republic, and they offer it untainted by the feudal insolence of the old régime, or by the wars and calamities of the Empire.
‘The least objectionable Monarchy would be the Monarchy of the Comte de Paris. As I said before, that is now impossible. The Protestantism of the Duchess of Orleans is alone an insurmountable objection. It opposes to her the whole influence of the clergy, and that influence is stronger now than it has been since the death of Louis XIV.
‘Nothing so much strengthened the Legitimists as the Protestantism which surrounded the Orleanists. But a few years hence, when the age of the Comte de Paris diminishes the fear of his mother’s influence; when Guizot has retired from politics to history; when we are thoroughly tired of Presidents and Executive Commissions, we may think of using la branche cadette, as the best lever to raise us out of the mire of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
‘In co-operating to bring back Henri V. the Orleanists give up this chance. It may not be great, but it is something.’
We left Paris on the next morning.
For this conversation see Senior’s Journals in France.—Ed.
M. Faucher was at this time Prime Minister.—Ed.
See Senior’s Journals in France, vol. ii. p. 200.—Ed.
See Senior’s Journals in France, vol. ii. p. 216.