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Conversations. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior from 1834-1859, vol. 2 (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. II.
Part of: Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior from 1834-1859, 2 vols.
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Paris, May 9, 1853.—I drank tea with the Tocquevilles. Neither of them is well.
In February they were caught, on their journey from Tocqueville to Paris, by the bitter weather of the beginning of that month. It produced rheumatism and then pleurisy with him, and inflammation of the bowels with her; and both are still suffering from the effects either of the disorder or of the remedies.
In the summer Paris will be too hot and Tocqueville too damp. So they have taken a small house at St. Cyr, about a mile from Tours, where they hope for a tolerable climate, easy access to Paris, and the use of the fine library of the cathedral. He entered eagerly on the Eastern question, and agreed on all points with Faucher; admitted the folly and rashness of the French, but deplored the over-caution which had led us to refuse interference, at least effectual interference, and to allow Turkey to sink into virtual subservience to Russia.
Paris, Tuesday, May 17.—Tocqueville and I stood on my balcony, and looked along the Rue de Rivoli and the Place de la Concorde, swarming with equipages, and on the well-dressed crowds in the gardens below. From the height in which we were placed all those apparently small objects, in incessant movement, looked like a gigantic ant-hill disturbed.
‘I never,’ said Tocqueville, ‘have known Paris so animated or apparently so prosperous. Much is to be attributed to the saving of the four previous years. The parsimony of the Parisians ended in 1850; but the parsimony of the provinces, always great, and in unsettled times carried to actual avarice, lasted during the whole of the Republic. Commercial persons tell me that the arrival of capital which comes up for investment from the provinces deranges all their calculations. It is like the sudden burst of vegetation which you have seen during the last week. We have passed suddenly from winter to summer.
‘I own,’ he continued, ‘that it fills me with alarm. Among the innumerable schemes that are afloat, some must be ill-founded, some must be swelled beyond their proper dimensions, and some may be mere swindles. The city of Paris and the Government are spending 150,000,000l. in building in Paris. This is almost as much as the fortifications cost. It has always been said, and I believe with truth, that the revolutionary army of 1848 was mainly recruited from the 40,000 additional workmen whom the fortifications attracted from the country, and left without employment when they were finished. When this enormous extra-expenditure is over, when the Louvre, and the new rue de Rivoli, and the Halles, and the street that is to run from the Hôtel de Ville to the northern boundary of Paris, are completed—that is to say, when a city has been built out of public money in two or three years—what will become of the mass of discharged workmen?
‘What will become of those on the railways if they are suddenly stopped, as yours were in 1846? What will be the shock if the Crédit Foncier or the Crédit Mobilier fail, after having borrowed each its milliard? Everything seems to me to be preparing for one of your panics, and the Government has so identified itself with the state of prosperity and state of credit of the country that a panic must produce a revolution. The Government claims the merit of all that is good, and of course is held responsible for all that is bad. If we were to have a bad harvest, it would be laid to the charge of the Emperor.
‘Of course,’ he continued, ‘I do not desire the perpetuation of the present tyranny. Its duration as a dynasty I believe to be absolutely impossible, except in one improbable contingency—a successful war.
‘But though, I repeat, I do not desire or expect the permanence of the Empire, I do not wish for its immediate destruction, before we are prepared with a substitute. The agents which are undermining it are sufficiently powerful and sufficiently active to occasion its fall quite as soon as we ought to wish for that fall.’
‘And what,’ I said, ‘are those agents?’
‘The principal agents,’ he answered, ‘are violence in the provinces and corruption in Paris. Since the first outbreak there has not been much violence in Paris. You must have observed that freedom of speech is universal. In every private society, and even in every café, hatred or contempt of the Government are the main topics of conversation. We are too numerous to be attacked. But in the provinces you will find perfect silence. Anyone who whispers a word against the Emperor may be imprisoned, or perhaps transported. The prefects are empowered by one of the decrees made immediately after the coup d’état to dissolve any Conseil communal in which there is the least appearance of disaffection, and to nominate three persons to administer the commune. In many cases this has been done, and I could point out to you several communes governed by the prefect’s nominees who cannot read. In time, of course, tyranny will produce corruption; but it has not yet prevailed extensively in the country, and the cause which now tends to depopularise him there is arbitrary violence exercised against those whom his agents suppose to be their enemies.
‘On the other hand, what is ruining him in Paris is not violence, but corruption.
‘The French are not like the Americans; they have no sympathy with smartness. Nothing so much excites their disgust as friponnerie. The main cause that overthrew Louis Philippe was the belief that he and his were fripons—that the representatives bought the electors, that the Minister bought the representatives, and that the King bought the Minister.
‘Now, no corruption that ever prevailed in the worst periods of Louis XV., nothing that was done by La Pompadour or the Du Barry resembles what is going on now. Duchâtel, whose organs are not over-acute, tells me that he shudders at what is forced on his notice. The perfect absence of publicity, the silence of the press and of the tribune, and even of the bar—for no speeches, except on the most trivial subjects, are allowed to be reported—give full room for conversational exaggeration. Bad as things are, they are made still worse. Now this we cannot bear. It hurts our strongest passion—our vanity. We feel that we are exploités by Persigny, Fould, and Abbattucci, and a swarm of other adventurers. The injury might be tolerated, but not the disgrace.
‘Every Government in France has a tendency to become unpopular as it continues. If you were to go down into the street, and inquire into the politics of the first hundred persons whom you met, you would find some Socialists, some Republicans, some Orleanists, &c., but you would find no Louis Napoleonists. Not a voice would utter his name without some expression of contempt or detestation, but principally of contempt.
‘If then things take their course—if no accident, such as a fever or a pistol-shot, cut him off—public indignation will spread from Paris to the country, his unpopularity will extend from the people to the army, and then the first street riot will be enough to overthrow him.’
‘And what power,’ I said, ‘will start up in his place?’
‘I trust,’ answered Tocqueville, ‘that the reins will be seized by the Senate. Those who have accepted seats in it excuse themselves by saying, “A time may come when we shall be wanted.” Probably the Corps Législatif will join them; and it seems to me clear that the course which such bodies will take must be the proclamation of Henri V.’
‘But what,’ I said, ‘would be the consequences of the pistol-shot or the fever?’
‘The immediate consequence,’ answered Tocqueville, ‘would be the installation of his successor. Jérôme would go to the Tuileries as easily as Charles X. did, but it would precipitate the end. We might bear Louis Napoleon for four or five years, or Jérôme for four or five months.’
‘It has been thought possible,’ I said, ‘that in the event of the Jérôme dynasty being overset by a military revolution, it might be followed by a military usurpation; that Nero might be succeeded by Galba.’
‘That,’ said Tocqueville, ‘is one of the few things which I hold to be impossible. Nero may be followed by another attempt at a Republic, but if any individual is to succeed him it must be a prince. Mere personal distinction, at least such as is within the bounds of real possibility, will not give the sceptre of France. It will be seized by no one who cannot pretend to an hereditary claim.
‘What I fear,’ continued Tocqueville, ‘is that when this man feels the ground crumbling under him, he will try the resource of war. It will be a most dangerous experiment. Defeat, or even the alternation of success and failure, which is the ordinary course of war, would be fatal to him; but brilliant success might, as I have said before, establish him. It would be playing double or quits. He is by nature a gambler. His self-confidence, his reliance, not only on himself, but on his fortune, exceeds even that of his uncle. He believes himself to have a great military genius. He certainly planned war a year ago. I do not believe that he has abandoned it now, though the general feeling of the country forces him to suspend it. That feeling, however, he might overcome; he might so contrive as to appear to be forced into hostilities; and such is the intoxicating effect of military glory, that the Government which would give us that would be pardoned, whatever were its defects or its crimes.
‘It is your business, and that of Belgium, to put yourselves into such a state of defence as to force him to make his spring on Italy. There he can do you little harm. But to us Frenchmen the consequences of war must be calamitous. If we fail, they are national loss and humiliation. If we succeed, they are slavery.’
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘the corruption that infects the civil service must in time extend to the army, and make it less fit for service.’
‘Of course it must,’ answered Tocqueville. ‘It will extend still sooner to the navy. The matériel of a force is more easily injured by jobbing than the personnel. And in the navy the matériel is the principal.
‘Our naval strength has never been in proportion to our naval expenditure, and is likely to be less and less so every year, at least during every year of the règne des fripons.’
Tuesday, May 24.—I breakfasted with Sir Henry Ellis and then went to Tocqueville’s.
I found there an elderly man, who did not remain long.
When he went, Tocqueville said, ‘That is one of our provincial prefects. He has been describing to us the state of public feeling in the South. Contempt for the present Government, he tells us, is spreading there from its headquarters, Paris.
‘If the Corps Législatif is dissolved, he expects the Opposition to obtain a majority in the new House.
‘This,’ continued Tocqueville, ‘is a state of things with which Louis Napoleon is not fit to cope. Opposition makes him furious, particularly Parliamentary opposition. His first impulse will be to go a step further in imitation of his uncle, and abolish the Corps Législatif, as Napoleon did the Tribunat.
‘But nearly half a century of Parliamentary life has made the French of 1853 as different from those of 1803 as the nephew is from his uncle.
‘He will scarcely risk another coup d’état; and the only legal mode of abolishing, or even modifying, the Corps Législatif is by a plébiscite submitted by ballot to universal suffrage.
‘Will he venture on this? And if he do venture, will he succeed? If he fail, will he not sink into a constitutional sovereign, controlled by an Assembly far more unmanageable than we deputies were, as the Ministers are excluded from it?’
‘Will he not rather,’ I said, ‘sink into an exile?’
‘That is my hope,’ said Tocqueville, ‘but I do not expect it quite so soon as Thiers does.’