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Correspondence. - 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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St. Cyr, July 2, 1853.
I am not going to talk to you, my dear Senior, about the Emperor, or the Empress, or any of the august members of the Imperial Family; nor of the Ministers, nor of any other public functionaries, because I am a well-disposed subject who does not wish that the perusal of his letters should give pain to his Government. I shall write to you upon an historical problem, and discuss with you events which happened five hundred years ago. There could not be a more innocent subject.
I have followed your advice, and I have read, or rather re-read, Blackstone. I studied him twenty years ago. Each time he has made upon me the same impression. Now, as then, I have ventured to consider him (if one may say so without blasphemy) 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 of 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 in the period immediately after the conquest with those of 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 identical. 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 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 have 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, and if any other eminent writers have treated this subject.
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.,1 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.
St. Cyr, December 8, 1853.
I must absolutely write to you to-day, my dear Senior. I have long been wishing to do so, but have been deterred by the annoyance I feel at not being able to discuss with you a thousand subjects as interesting to you as they are to me, but which one cannot mention in a letter; for letters are now less secret than ever, and to insist upon writing politics to our friends is equivalent to their not hearing from us at all. But I may, at any rate, without making the police uneasy, assure you of the great pleasure with which we heard that you intended paying us a little visit next month.
There is an excellent hotel at Tours, where you will find good apartments; for the rest, I hope that you will make our house your inn. We are near enough to Tours for me to walk there and back, and we regulate our clocks by the striking of theirs; so you see that it is difficult to be nearer.
I think that it is a capital idea of yours to visit French Africa. The country is curious in itself, also on account of the contrasts afforded by the different populations which spread over the land without ever mixing.
You will find them materials for some of those excellent and interesting articles which you write so well. When you come I shall be able to give you some useful information, for I have devoted much attention to Algiers. I have here a long report which I drew up for the Chamber in 1846, which may give you some valuable ideas, though things have considerably changed since that time.
Kind remembrances, &c.,
A. de Tocqueville.
[The following are some more of Mrs. Grote’s interesting notes. She preceded Mr. Senior at St. Cyr.—Ed.]
The notes relating to St. Cyr are memoranda of various conversations which I enjoyed during a stay of some ten days or so at Tours, in February 1854, with Monsieur Alexis de Tocqueville. I occupied an apartment in the hotel at Tours, and on almost every day passed some hours in the company of this interesting friend, who at this time lived at St. Cyr, in a commodious country-house having its garden, &c., which he rented. I drove out to dine there frequently, and M. de Tocqueville walked over on the intervening days and stayed an hour or two at the hotel with me talking incessantly.—H. G.
St. Cyr, February 13, 1854.—The French allow no author to have a claim to the highest rank unless he joins the perfection of style with the instructiveness of his matter. Only four first-rate writers in the eighteenth century—grandsécrivains, comme grands penseurs originaux; these being Montesquieu, Voltaire, J. J. Rousseau, and Buffon. Helvetius not en première ligne, because his forme was not up to the mark. Alexis himself is often hung up for days together, having the thoughts, yet not hitting off the ‘phrases’ in a way to satisfy his critical ear as to style.
Thinks that when a man is capable of originating a belle pensée, he ought to be also capable of clothing that thought in felicitous language.
Thinks that a torpid state of political life is unfavourable to intellectual product in general.
I instanced the case of Louis XIV. as contradicting this. Not admitted by Tocqueville. The civil wars of Louis XIV.’s reign had engendered considerable activity in the minds of the educated class. This activity generated speculation and scientific inquiry in all the departments of human thoughts. Abstract ideas became the field on which thinkers occupied themselves. No practical outlet under despotism, but a certain social fermentation nevertheless existing, and the want of making itself a vent impelled intellectual life and writings. I instanced Louis XV. ‘At least,’ I said, ‘the torpor of political life was become yet more a habit.’ ‘Yes,’ said Alexis, ‘but then there was the principle of discontent very widely diffused, which was the germ of the revolution of 1789. This restless, disaffected state of the national mind gave birth to some new forms of intellectual product, tending to rather more distinct practical results, which filtered down among the middle classes, and became the objects of their desires and projects.’ Rousseau and Voltaire eminently serviceable in leading the public sentiment towards the middle of the eighteenth century.
English writers and statesmen having always enjoyed the power of applying their minds to actual circumstances, and of appealing through a free press and free speech also to the public of their day, have never addressed themselves, as French philosophers did, to the cultivation of abstract speculations and general theories. Here and there a writer has been thrown, by his individual tastes and turn of thought, upon the study of political philosophy; but the Englishman, taken as a public writer, commonly addresses himself to practical legislation rather than to recondite studies or logical analysis and investigation of the relations between mankind and their regulations under authorised powers. Since Lord Bacon there have been few, excepting in our later times Mill, Bentham, and his disciples, who have explored the metaphysics of jurisprudence and moral science in England. Hume dealt in the philosophic treatment of political subjects, but did not work them up into anything like a coherent system. English are not fond of generalities, but get on by their instincts, bit by bit, as need arises.
Alexis thinks that the writers of the period antecedent to the revolution of 1789 were quite as much thrown up by the condition of public sentiment as they were the exciters of it. Nothing comprehensive, in matters of social arrangement, can be effected under a state of things like that of England; so easy there for a peculiar grievance to get heard, so easy for a local or class interest to obtain redress against any form of injustice, that legislation must be ‘patching.’ Next to impossible to reorganise a community without a revolution.
Alexis has been at work for about a year in rummaging amid archives, partly in those of the capital, partly in those of the Touraine. In this last town a complete collection is contained of the records of the old ‘Intendance,’ under which several provinces were governed. Nothing short of a continuous and laborious poring over the details of Government furnished by these invaluable paperasses could possibly enable a student of the past century to frame to himself any clear conception of the working of the social relations and authorities in old France. There exists no such tableau. The manners of the higher classes and their daily life and habits are well portrayed in heaps of memoirs, and even pretty well understood by our contemporaries. But the whole structure of society, in its relations with the authorised agents of supreme power, including the pressure of those secondary obligations arising out of coutumes du pays, is so little understood as to be scarcely available to a general comprehension of the old French world before 1789.
Alexis says that the reason why the great upheaving of that period has never been to this day sufficiently appreciated, never sufficiently explained, is because the actual living hideousness of the social details and relations of that period, seen from the points of view of a penetrating contemporary looker-on, has never yet been depicted in true colours and with minute particulars. After having dived into the social history of that century, as I have stated, his conviction is that it was impossible that the revolution of 1789 should not burst out. Cause and effect were never more irrevocably associated than in this terrible case. Nothing but the compulsory idleness and obscurity into which Alexis has been thrown since December 1851 would have put even him upon the researches in question. Few perhaps could have addressed themselves to the task with such remarkable powers of interpretation, and with such talents for exploring the connection between thought and action as he is endowed with. Also he is singularly exempt from aristocratical prejudices, and quite capable of sympathising with popular feeling, though naturally not partial to democracy.
February 15.—De Tocqueville came down in close carriage and sat an hour and a half by fireside. Weather horrible. Talked of La Marck’s book on Mirabeau;1 said that the line Mirabeau pursued was perfectly well known to Frenchmen prior to the appearance of La Marck’s book; but that the actual details were of course a new revelation, and highly valued accordingly. Asked what we thought of it in England. I told him the leading impression made by the book was the clear perception of the impossibility of effecting any good or coming to terms in any manner of way of the revolutionary leaders with such a Court. That we also had long suspected Mirabeau of being what he was now proved to have been—a man who, imbued though he was with the spirit of revolutionary action and the conviction of the rightfulness of demanding prodigious changes, yet who would willingly have directed the monarch in a method of warding off the terrible consequences of the storm, and who would, if the Court had confided to his hands the task of conciliating the popular feelings, have perhaps preserved the forms of monarchy while affording the requisite concessions to the national demands. But the Court was so steeped in the old sentiment of divine right, and moreover so distrustful of Mirabeau’s honour and sagacity (the more so as he was insatiable in his pecuniary requisitions), that they would never place their cause frankly in his hands, nor indeed in anyone else’s who was capable of discerning their best interests. Lafayette was regarded as an enemy almost (and was ‘jaloused’ by Mirabeau as being so popular) on account of his popular sympathies. De Tocqueville said that so diffused was the spirit of revolution at the period preceding the convocation of the États-généraux, that the elder Mirabeau, who was a very clever and original-minded man, though strongly tinctured with the old feudal prejudices, nevertheless let the fact be seen in the clearest manner in his own writings. He wrote many tracts on public topics, and De Tocqueville says that the tone in which Mirabeau (père) handles these proves that he was perfectly cognisant of the universal spread of revolutionary opinions, and even in some degree influenced by them in his own person. Mirabeau (the son) was so aware of the absolute necessity of proclaiming himself emancipated from the old feudalities, that, among other extravagances of his conduct, he started as a shopkeeper at Marseilles for some time, by way of fraternizing with the bourgeoisie; affichéing his liberalism. De Tocqueville quoted Napoleon as saying in one of his conversations at St. Helena that he had been a spectator from a window of the scene at the Tuileries, on the famous August 10, 1792, and that it was his conviction (Napoleon’s) that, even at that stage, the revolution might have been averted—at least, the furious character of it might have been turned aside—by judicious modes of negociation on the part of the King’s advisers. De Tocqueville does not concur in Napoleon’s opinion. ‘Cahiers,’ published 1789, contain the whole body of instructions supplied to their respective delegates by the trois états (clergé, noblesse, et Tiers État), on assembling in convocation. Of this entire and voluminous collection (which is deposited in the archives of France) three volumes of extracts are to be bought which were a kind of rédigé of the larger body of documents. In these three volumes De Tocqueville mentioned, one may trace the course of the public sentiment with perfect clearness. Each class demanded a large instalment of constitutional securities; the nobles perhaps demanded the largest amount of all the three. Nothing could be more thoroughgoing than the requisitions which the body of the noblesse charged their delegates to enforce in the Assembly of the États-généraux—‘égalisations des charges (taxation), responsabilité des ministres, indépendance des tribunaux, liberté de la personne, garantie de la propriété contre la couronne,’ a balance-sheet annually of the public expenses and public revenue, and, in fact, all the salient privileges necessary in order to ènfranchise a community weary of despotism. The clergy asked for what they wanted with equal resolution, and the bourgeoisie likewise; but what the nobles were instructed to demand was the boldest of all. We talked of the letters of the writers of the eighteenth century, and of the correspondence of various eminent men and women with David Hume, which Mr. Hill Burton has published in a supplementary volume in addition to those comprised in his life of David Hume, and which I have with me. I said that the works of Hume being freely printed and circulated caused great pleasure to the French men of letters, mingled with envy at the facility enjoyed by the Englishman of publishing anything he chose; the French writers being debarred, owing to the importunity of the clergy with Louis XV., from publishing freely their works in France, and only managing to get themselves printed by employing printers at the Hague, Amsterdam, and other towns beyond the limits of the kingdom. To my surprise, De Tocqueville replied that this disability, so far from proving disadvantageous to the esprits forts of the period, and the encyclopædic school, was a source of gain to them in every respect. Every book or tract which bore the stamp of being printed at the Hague or elsewhere, out of France, was speedily caught up and devoured. It was a passport to success. Everyone knowing that, since it was printed there, it must be of a nature to give offence to the ruling powers, and especially to the priesthood, and as such, all who were imbued with the new opinions were sure to run after books bearing this certificate of merit. De Tocqueville said that the savans of 1760-1789 would not have printed in France, had they been free to do so, at the period immediately preceding the accession of Louis XVI.
Talked of Lafayette: said he was as great as pure, good intentions and noble instincts could make a man; but that he was d’un esprit médiocre, and utterly at a loss how to turn affairs to profit at critical junctures—never knew what was coming, no political foresight. Mistake in putting Louis Philippe on the throne sans garantie in 1830; misled by his own disinterested character to think better of public men than he ought to have done. Great personal integrity shown by Lafayette during the Empire, and under the Restoration: not to be cajoled by any monarch.
February 16.—The current fallacy of Napoleon having made the important alterations in the laws of France. All the eminent new enactments originated in the Constituent Assembly, only that they set to work in such sledgehammer fashion, that the carrying out their work became extremely troublesome and difficult. Too abstract in their notions to estimate difficulties of detail in changing the framework of jurisprudence. De Tocqueville said philosophers must always originate laws, but men used to active practical life ought to undertake to direct the transition from old to new arrangements. The Constituent Assembly did prodigious things in the way of clearing the ground of past abominations. Napoleon had the talent of making their work take effect; understood administrative science, but rendered the centralising principle far too predominant, in the view to consolidate his own power afterwards. France has felt this, to her cost, ever since.
Habit formerly (i.e. 300 years back) as prevalent in France as it is in England of gentlemen of moderate fortune residing wholly or by far the greater part of the year on their estates. They ceased to do so from the time when the sovereign took from them all local authority, from the fifteenth century or so. The French country-houses were excessively thickly dotted over the land even up to the year 1600; quantities pulled down after that period. Country life becoming flat after the gentlemen ceased to be of importance in their political relations with their districts, they gave up rural habits and took to living in the provincial towns.
De Tocqueville had many conversations with M. Royer Collard respecting the events of 1789. Difficult to get much out of men of our period relative to their own early manhood. His own father (now 82) much less capable of communicating details of former régime than might have been supposed. Because, says De Tocqueville, youths of eighteen to twenty hardly ever possess the faculty or the inclination to note social peculiarities. They accept what they find going, and scarcely give a thought to the contemplation of what is familiar to them and of every day’s experience. Royer Collard was a man of superior mind: had a great deal to relate. De Tocqueville used to pump him whenever an opportunity occurred. Knew Danton well, used to discuss political affairs with him. When revolution was fairly launched, saw him occasionally. Danton was venal to the last degree; received money from the Court over and over again; ‘agitated,’ and was again sopped by the agents of Marie Antoinette. When matters grew formidable (in 1791) Royer Collard was himself induced to become an agent or go-between of the Court for buying up Danton. He sought an opportunity, and after some prefatory conversations Royer Collard led Danton to the point. ‘No,’ said Danton, ‘I cannot listen to any such suggestions now. Times are altered. It is too late. ‘Nous le détrônerons et puis nous le tuerons,’ added he in an emphatic tone. Royer Collard of course gave up the hope of succeeding.
Danton’s passion for a young girl, whom he married, became his ruin. While he was honeymooning it by some river’s margin, Robespierre got the upper hand in the Assembly, and caused him to be seized—mis en jugement—and soon afterwards guillotined. The woman did not know, it is affirmed, that it was Danton who set the massacres of 1792 agoing; she thought him a good-hearted man. He set all his personal enemies free out of their prisons prior to the commencement of the massacres; wishing to be able to boast of having spared his enemies, as a proof that he was actuated by no ignoble vengance, but only by a patriotic impulse. He was a low, mean-souled fanatic, who had no clear conception of what he was aiming at, but who delighted in the horrid excitement prevailing around him. It was Tallien who had the chief share in the deposition of Robespierre and the transactions of the 9th thermidor. Madame Tallien was then in prison, and going to be executed in a few days (she was not yet married to Tallien then). She wrote, by stealth of course, a few emphatic words, with a toothpick and soot wetted, to Tallien which nerved him to the conflict, and she was saved. Talleyrand told De Tocqueville she was beyond everything captivating, beautiful, and interesting. She afterwards became the mistress of Barras, and finally married the Prince de Chimay.
De Tocqueville has been at Voré, Helvetius’ château in La Perche—a fine place, and Helvetius lived en seigneur there. A grand-daughter of Helvetius married M. de Rochambeau, uncle, by mother’s side, of Alexis: so that the great-grandchildren are De Tocqueville’s first cousins.
In the ‘Souvenirs’ of M. Berryer (père) he describes the scene of the 9th thermidor, in which he was actively concerned in the interest of the Convention, and saw Robespierre borne past him with his shattered jaw along the Quai Pelletier. Also went to the terrace of the Tuileries gardens to assure himself that Robespierre was really executed the next day; heard the execrations and shouts which attended his last moments, but did not stay to witness them. Release of the Duchess of St. Aignan, under sentence of death, by his father.
February 18.—A. de Tocqueville came to see me, and we walked out for half-an-hour. He said he had now spent over eight months in a seclusion such as he had never experienced in his whole life. That, partly his own debilitated health, partly the impaired state of his wife’s general powers (nervous system inclusive), partly the extreme aversion he felt for public affairs and the topics of the day connected with politics; all these considerations had determined him upon withdrawing himself from society for a certain space, and that to a considerable distance from all his friends and relations. A physician, also of widely extended fame (Dr. Brittonneau), happening to reside close to where they have lodged themselves, formed an additional link in the chain of motives for settling themselves at Tours. M. de Tocqueville had some misgivings at first as to whether, after passing twenty years in active public life, and in the frequent society of men who occupied the most distinguished position in the political world, as well as of others not less eminent in that of letters; whether, he said, the monotony and stillness of his new mode of life would not be too much for his spirits and render his mind indolent and depressed. ‘But,’ said he, ‘I have been agreeably reassured. I have come to regard society as a thing which I can perfectly well do without. I desire nothing better than to occupy myself, as I have been doing, with the composition of a work which I am in hopes will travel over somewhat other than beaten ground. I have found many materials for my purpose in this spot, and the pursuit has got hold of me to a degree which renders intellectual labour a source of pleasure; and I prosecute it steadily, unless when my health is out of order; which, happily, does not occur so frequently since the last three or four months. My wife’s company serves to encourage me in my work, and to cheer me in every respect, since an entire sympathy subsists between us, as you know; we seem to require no addition, and our lives revolve in the most inflexible routine possible. I rise at half-past five, and work seriously till half-past nine; then dress for déjeûner at ten. I commonly walk half-an-hour afterwards, and then set to on some other study—usually of late in the German language—till two p.m., when I go out again and walk for two hours, if weather allows. In the evenings I read to amuse myself, often reading aloud to Madame de Tocqueville, and go to bed at ten p.m. regularly every night.’
‘Sometimes,’ said De Tocqueville, ‘I reflect on the difference which may be discerned between the amount of what a man can effect by even the most strenuous and well-directed efforts, whether as a public servant or as a leading man in political life, and what a writer of impressive books has it in his power to effect. It is true that a man of talent and courage may acquire a creditable position, may exercise great influence over other individuals engaged in the same career, and may enjoy a certain measure of triumphant success in cases where he can put out his strength. At the same time it strikes me that the best of these exaggerates immensely the amount of good which he has been able to effect. I look back upon prodigiously vivid passages in various public men’s lives, in this century, with a melancholy reflection of how little influence their magnificent efforts have really exercised over the march of human affairs. A man is apt to believe he has done great things when his hearers and contemporaries are strongly affected, either by a powerful speech, or an animated address, or an act of opportune courage, or the like. But, if we investigate the positive amount of what the individual has effected in the way of bettering or advancing the general interests of mankind, by personal exertion on the public stage, I regret to say I can find hardly an instance of more than a transient, though beneficial, flash of excitement produced on the public mind. I do not here speak of men invested with great power—princes, prime ministers, popes, generals and the like. Of course they produce lasting traces of their power, whether it be for good or evil; and, indeed, individuals have on their side considerable power to work mischief, though not often to work good. I begin to think that a man not invested with a considerable amount of political power can do but little good by slaving at the oar of independent political action. Now, on the contrary, what a vast effect a writer can produce, when he possesses the requisite knowledge and endowments! In his cabinet, his thoughts collected, his ideas well arranged, he may hope to imprint indelible traces on the line of human progress. What orator, what brilliant patriot at the tribune, could ever effect the extensive fermentation in a whole nation’s sentiments achieved by Voltaire and Jean Jacques?
‘I have certainly seen reason to change some of my views on social facts, as well as some reasonings founded on imperfect observation. But the fond of my opinions can never undergo a change—certain irrevocable maxims and propositions must constitute the basis of thinking minds. How such changes can come about as I have lived to see in some men’s states of opinion is to me incomprehensible. Lafayette was foolish enough to give his support to certain conspiracies—certainly to that of Béfort’s, in Alsace. What folly! to seek to upset a despotism by the agency of the soldiery, in the nineteenth century!’
Mr. Senior’s Journals.—Ed.
See Royal and Republican France, by H. Reeve Esq. vol. i.—Ed.