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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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I passed the 3rd and 4th of April in the Corps Législatif listening to the debate on the demand by the Government of permission to prosecute M. de Montalembert, a member of the Corps Législatif, for the publication of a letter to M. Dupin, which it treated as libellous. As it was supposed that M. de Montalembert’s speech would be suppressed, I wrote as much of it as I could carry in my recollection; the only other vehicle—notes—not being allowed to be taken.1 On the evening of the 5th of April I left Paris for St. Cyr.
St. Cyr, Thursday, April 6, 1854.—I drove with Tocqueville to Chenonceaux, a château of the sixteenth century, about sixteen miles from Tours, on the Cher. I say on the Cher, for such is literally its position. It is a habitable bridge, stretching across the water.
The two first arches, which spring from the right bank of the river, and the piers which form their abutments, are about one hundred feet wide, and support a considerable house. The others support merely a gallery, called by our guide the ballroom of Catherine de Médicis, ending in a small theatre. The view from the windows of the river flowing through wooded meadows is beautiful and peculiar. Every window looks on the river; many rooms, as is the case with the gallery, look both up and down it. It must be a charming summer residence. The rooms still retain the furniture which was put into them by Diane de Poictiers and Catherine de Médicis; very curious and very uncomfortable; high narrow chairs, short sofas, many-footed tables, and diminutive mirrors. The sculptured pilasters, scrolls, bas-reliefs and tracery of the outside are not of fine workmanship, but are graceful and picturesque. The associations are interesting, beginning with Francis I. and ending with Rousseau, who spent there the autumn of 1746, as the guest of Madame Dupin, and wrote a comedy for its little theatre. The present proprietor, the Marquis de Villeneuve, is Madame Dupin’s grandson.
In the evening we read my report of the debate on Montalembert.
‘It is difficult,’ said Tocqueville, ‘to wish that so great a speech had been suppressed. But I am inclined to think that Montalembert’s wiser course was to remain silent. What good will his speech do? It will not be published. Yours is probably the only report of it. So far as the public hears anything of it, the versions coming through an unfavourable medium will be misrepresentations. In a letter which I received from Paris this morning it is called virulent. It was of great importance that the minority against granting the consent should be large, and I have no doubt that this speech diminished it by twenty or thirty. It must have wounded many, frightened many, and afforded a pretext to many. Perhaps, however, it was not in human nature for such a speaker as Montalembert to resist the last opportunity of uttering bold truths in a French Assembly.’
Friday, April 7.—We drove to-day along the Loire to Langrais, about twelve miles below Tours.
Here is a castle of the thirteenth century, consisting of two centre and two corner towers, and a curtain between them, terminating in a rocky promontory. Nothing can be more perfect than the masonry, or more elegant than the few ornaments. The outside is covered with marks of bullets, which appear to have rattled against it with little effect.
On our return we visited the castles of Cinq Mars and Luynes. Langrais, Cinq Mars, and Luynes were all the property of Effiat, Marquis of Cinq Mars, who with De Thou conspired against Richelieu in the latter part of Louis XIII.’s reign, and was beheaded. The towers of Cinq Mars were, in the words of his sentence, ‘rasées à la hauteur de l’infamie,’ and remain now cut down to half their original height. Luynes stands finely, crowning a knoll overlooking the Loire. It is square, with twelve towers, two on each side and four in the corners, and a vast ditch, and must have been strong. Nearly a mile from it are the remains of a Roman aqueduct, of which about thirty piers and six perfect arches remain. It is of stone, except the arches, which have a mixture of brick. The peasants, by digging under the foundations, are rapidly destroying it. An old man told us that he had seen six or seven piers tumble. A little nearer to Tours is the Pile de Cinq Mars, a solid, nearly square tower of Roman brickwork more than ninety feet high, and about twelve feet by fourteen feet thick. On one side there appear to have been inscriptions or bas-reliefs. Ampère believes it to have been a Roman tomb; but the antiquaries are divided and perplexed. Being absolutely solid, it could not have been built for any use.
I am struck during my walks and drives by the appearance of prosperity. The country about Tours is dotted with country-houses, quite as numerous as in any part of England. In St. Cyr alone there must be between twenty and thirty, and the houses of the peasants are far better than the best cottages of English labourers. Everyone seems to have attached to it a considerable piece of land, from ten acres to two, cultivated in vines, vegetables and fruit. These and green crops are nearly the only produce; there is very little grain. All the persons whom I met appeared to be healthy and well-clad. The soil and climate are good, and the proximity to Tours insures a market; but physical advantages are not enough to insure prosperity. The neighbourhood of Cork enjoys a good climate, soil, and market, but the inhabitants are not prosperous.
After some discussion Tocqueville agreed with me in attributing the comfort of the Tourainese to the slowness with which population increases. In the commune of Tocqueville the births are only three to a marriage, but both Monsieur and Madame de Tocqueville think that the number of children here is still less. I scarcely meet any.
Marriages are late, and very seldom take place until a house and a bit of ground and some capital have been inherited or accumulated. Touraine is the best specimen of the petite culture that I have seen. The want of wood makes it objectionable as a summer residence.
We are now suffering from heat. After eight in the morning it is too hot to walk along the naked glaring roads, yet this is only the first week in April.
Saturday, April 8.—The sun has been so scorching during our two last drives that we have given ouselves a holiday to-day, and only dawdled about Tours.
We went first to the cathedral, which I never see without increased pleasure. Though nearly four hundred years passed from its commencement in the twelfth century to its completion in the fifteenth, the whole interior is as harmonious as if it had been finished by the artist who began it. I know nothing in Gothic architecture superior to the grandeur, richness, and yet lightness of the choir and eastern apse. Thence we went to St. Julien’s, a fine old church of the thirteenth century, desecrated in the Revolution, but now under restoration.
Thence to the Hôtel Gouin, a specimen of the purely domestic architecture of the fifteenth century, covered with elegant tracery and scroll-work in white marble. We ended with Plessis-les-Tours, Louis XI.’s castle, which stands on a flat, somewhat marshy, tongue of land stretching between the Loire and the Cher. All that remains is a small portion of one of the inner courts, probably a guard-room, and a cellar pointed out to us as the prison in which Louis XI. kept Cardinal de la Balue for several years. The cellar itself is not bad for a prison of those days, but he is said to have passed his first year or two in a grated vault under the staircase, in which he could neither stand up nor lie at full length.
‘It is remarkable,’ said Tocqueville, ‘that the glorious reigns in French history, such as those of Louis Onze, Louis Quatorze, and Napoleon ended in the utmost misery and exhaustion, while the periods at which we are accustomed to look as those of disturbance and insecurity were those of comparative prosperity and progress. It seems as if tyranny were worse than civil war.’
‘And yet,’ I said, ‘the amount of revenue which these despots managed to squeeze out of France was never large. The taxation under Napoleon was much less than under Louis Philippe.’
‘Yes,’ said Tocqueville, ‘but it was the want of power to tax avowedly that led them into indirect modes of raising money, which were far more mischievous; just as our servants put us to more expense by their jobs than they would do if they simply robbed us to twice the amount of their indirect gains.
‘Louis XIV. destroyed all the municipal franchises of France, and paved the way for this centralized tyranny, not from any dislike of municipal elections, but merely in order to be able himself to sell the places which the citizens had been accustomed to grant.’
Sunday, April 9.—Another sultry day. I waited till the sun was low, and then sauntered by the side of the river with Tocqueville.
‘The worst faults of this Government,’ said Tocqueville, ‘are those which do not alarm the public.
‘It is depriving us of the local franchises and local self-government which we have extorted from the central power in a struggle of forty years. The Restoration and the Government of July were as absolute centralizers as Napoleon himself. The local power which they were forced to surrender they made over to the narrow pays légal, the privileged ten-pounders, who were then attempting to govern France. The Republic gave the name of Conseils-généraux to the people, and thus dethroned the notaires who had governed those assemblies when they represented only the bourgeoisie. The Republic made the maires elective. The Republic placed education in the hands of local authorities. Under its influence, the communes, the cantons, and the departments were becoming real administrative bodies. They are now mere geographical divisions. The préfet appoints the maires. The préfet appoints in every canton a commissaire de police—seldom a respectable man, as the office is not honourable. The gardes champêtres, who are our local police, are put under his control. The recteur, who was a sort of local Minister of Education in every department, is suppressed. His powers are transferred to the préfet. The préfet appoints, promotes, and dismisses all the masters of the écoles primaires. He has the power to convert the commune into a mere unorganised aggregation of individuals, by dismissing every communal functionary, and placing its concerns in the hands of his own nominees. There are many hundreds of communes that have been thus treated, and whose masters now are uneducated peasants. The préfet can dissolve the Conseil-général of his department and, although he cannot directly name its successors, he does so virtually.
‘No candidate for an elective office can succeed unless he is supported by the Government. The préfet can destroy the prosperity of every commune that displeases him. He can dismiss its functionaries, close its schools, obstruct its improvements, and withhold the assistance in money which the Government habitually gives to forward the public purposes of a commune.
‘The Courts of Law, both criminal and civil, are the tools of the Executive. The Government appoints the judges, the préfet provides the jury, and la haute police acts without either.
‘All power of combination, even of mutual communication, except from mouth to mouth, is gone. The newspapers are suppressed or intimidated, the printers are the slaves of the préfet, as they lose their privilege if they offend; the secrecy of the post is habitually and avowedly violated; there are spies to watch and report conversation.
‘Every individual stands defenceless and insulated in the face of this unscrupulous Executive with its thousands of armed hands and its thousands of watching eyes. The only opposition that is ventured is the abstaining from voting. Whatever be the office, whatever be the man, the candidate of the préfet comes in; but if he is a man who would have been universally rejected in a state of freedom, the bolder electors show their indignation by their absence. I do not believe that, even with peace, and with the prosperity which usually accompanies peace, such a Government could long keep down such a country as France. Whether its existence would be prolonged by a successful war I will not decide. Perhaps it might be.
‘That it cannot carry on a war only moderately successful, or a war which from its difficulties and its distance may be generally believed to be ill managed, still less a war stained by some real disaster, seems to me certain—if anything in the future of France can be called certain.
‘The vast democratic sea on which the Empire floats is governed by currents and agitated by ground-swells, which the Government discovers only by their effects. It knows nothing of the passions which influence these great, apparently slumbering, masses; indeed it takes care, by stifling their expression, to prevent their being known. Universal suffrage is a detestable element of government, but it is a powerful revolutionary instrument.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘the people will not have an opportunity of using that instrument. All the great elective bodies have some years before them.’
‘That is true,’ said Tocqueville, ‘and therefore their rage will break out in a more direct, and perhaps more formidable, form. Depend on it, this Government can exist, even for a time, only on the condition of brilliant, successful war, or prosperous peace. It is bound to be rapidly and clearly victorious. If it fail in this, it will sink—or perhaps, in its terrors and its struggles, it will catch at the other alternative, peace.
‘The French public is too ignorant to care much about Russian aggrandisement. So far as it fancies that the strength of Russia is the weakness of England, it is pleased with it. I am not sure that the most dishonourable peace with Nicholas would not give to Louis Napoleon an immediate popularity. I am sure that it would, if it were accompanied by any baits to the national vanity and cupidity; by the offer of Savoy for instance, or the Balearic Islands. And if you were to quarrel with us for accepting them, it would be easy to turn against you our old feelings of jealousy and hatred.’
We saw vast columns of smoke on the other side of the river. Those whom we questioned believed them to arise from an intentional fire. Such fires are symptoms of popular discontent. They preceded the revolution of 1830. They have become frequent of late in this country.
Monday, April 10.—Tocqueville and I drove this morning to Azy-le-Rideau, another Francis I. château, on an island formed by the Indre. It is less beautifully situated than Chenonceaux; the river Indre is smaller and more sluggish than the Cher; the site of the castle is in a hollow, and the trees round it approach too near, and are the tall and closely planted poles which the French seem to admire. But the architecture, both in its outlines and in its details, is charming. It is of white stone, in this form, with two curtains and
four towers. The whole outside and the ceilings and cornices within are covered with delicate arabesques.
Like Chenonceaux, it escaped the revolution, and is now, with its furniture of the sixteenth century, the residence of the Marquis de Biancourt, descended from its ancient proprietors.
As we sauntered over the gardens, our conversation turned on the old aristocracy of France.
‘The loss of our aristocracy,’ said Tocqueville, ‘is a misfortune from which we have not even begun to recover. The Legitimists are their territorial successors; they are the successors in their manners, in their loyalty, and in their prejudices of caste; but they are not their successors in cultivation, or intelligence, or energy, or, therefore, in influence. Between them and the bourgeoisie is a chasm, which shows no tendency to close. Nothing but a common interest and a common pursuit will bring them together.
‘If the murder of the Duc d’Enghien had not made them recoil in terror and disgust from Napoleon, they might have perhaps been welded into one mass with his new aristocracy of services, talents, and wealth. They were ready to adhere to him during the Consulate. During the Restoration they were always at war with the bourgeoisie, and therefore with the constitution, on which the power of their enemies depended. When the result of that war was the defeat and expulsion of their leader, Charles X., their hostility extended from the bourgeoisie and the constitution up to the Crown. Louis Philippe tried to govern by means of the middle classes alone. Perhaps it was inevitable that he should make the attempt. It certainly was inevitable that he should fail. The higher classes, and the lower classes, all equally offended, combined to overthrow him. Under the Republic they again took, to a certain extent, their place in the State. They led the country people, who came to the assistance of the Assembly in June 1848. The Republic was wise enough to impose no oaths. It did not require those who were willing to serve it to begin by openly disavowing their traditionary opinions and principles. The Legitimists took their places in the Conseils-généraux. They joined with the bourgeoisie in local administration, the only means by which men of different classes can coalesce.
‘The socialist tendencies which are imputed to this Second Empire, the oath which it most imprudently imposes, its pretensions to form a dynasty, and its assertion of the principle most abhorrent to them, elective monarchy, have thrown them back into disaffection. And I believe their disaffection to be one of our great dangers—a danger certainly increased by the Fusion. The principal object of the Fusion is to influence the army. The great terror of the army is division in itself. It will accept anything, give up anything, dare anything, to avoid civil war. Rather than be divided between the two branches, it would have adhered to the Empire. Now it can throw off the Bonapartes without occasioning a disputed succession.’
‘When you say,’ I asked, ‘that the Legitimists are not the successors of the old aristocracy in cultivation, intelligence, or energy, do you mean to ascribe to them positive or relative inferiority in these qualities?’
‘In energy,’ answered Tocqueville, ‘their deficiency is positive. They are ready to suffer for their cause, they are not ready to exert themselves for it. In intelligence and cultivation they are superior to any other class in France; but they are inferior to the English aristocracy, and they are inferior, as I said before, to their ancestors of the eighteenth century. There existed in the highest Parisian society towards the end of that century a comprehensiveness of curiosity and inquiry, a freedom of opinion, an independence, and soundness of judgment, never seen before or since. Its pursuits, its pleasures, its admirations, its vanities, were all intellectual. Look at the success of Hume. His manners were awkward; he was a heavy, though an instructive, converser; he spoke bad French; he would pass now for an intelligent bore. But such was the worship then paid to talents and knowledge—especially to knowledge, and talents employed on the destruction of prejudices—that Hume was, for years, the lion of all the salons of Paris. The fashionable beauties quarrelled for the fat philosopher. Nor was their admiration or affection put on, or even transitory. He retained some of them as intimate friends for life. If the brilliant talkers and writers of that time were to return to life, I do not believe that gas, or steam, or chloroform, or the electric telegraph, would so much astonish them as the dulness of modern society, and the mediocrity of modern books.’
In the evening we discussed the new scheme of throwing open the service of India and of the Government offices to public competition.
‘We have followed,’ said Tocqueville, ‘that system to a great extent for many years. Our object was two-fold. One was to depress the aristocracy of wealth, birth, and connexions. In this we have succeeded. The École Polytechnique, and the other schools in which the vacancies are given to those who pass the best examinations, are filled by youths belonging to the middle classes, who, undistracted by society, or amusement, or by any literary or scientific pursuits, except those immediately bearing on their examinations, beat their better-born competitors, who will not degrade themselves into the mere slaves of success in the concours. Our other object was to obtain the best public servants. In that we have failed. We have brought knowledge and ability to an average; diminished the number of incompetent employés, and reduced, almost to nothing, the number of distinguished ones. Continued application to a small number of subjects, and those always the same, not selected by the student, but imposed on him by the inflexible rule of the establishment, without reference to his tastes or to his powers, is as bad for the mind as the constant exercise of one set of muscles would be for the body.
‘We have a name for those who have been thus educated. They are called “polytechnisés.” If you follow our example, you will increase your second-rates, and extinguish your first-rates; and what is perhaps a more important result, whether you consider it a good or an evil, you will make a large stride in the direction in which you have lately made so many—the removing the government and the administration of England from the hands of the higher classes into those of the middle and lower ones.’