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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, Saturday, April 17, 1858.—We had a discussion at the Institut to-day as to a bust to fill a niche in the anteroom. Rossi was proposed. His political merits were admitted, but he was placed low as to his literary claims as an economist and a jurist. Dupin suggested Talleyrand, which was received with a universal groan, and failed for want of a seconder. Ultimately the choice fell on Dumont.
‘Nothing that is published of Talleyrand’s,’ said Tocqueville to me as we walked home, ‘has very great merit, nor indeed is much of it his own. He hated writing, let his reports and other state papers be drawn up by others, and merely retouched them. But in the archives of the Affaires étrangères there is a large quarto volume containing his correspondence with Louis XVIII. during the Congress of Vienna. Nothing can be more charming. The great European questions which were then in debate, the diplomatic and social gossip of Vienna, the contemporary literature—in short, all that one clever homme du monde could find to interest and amuse another, are treated with wit, brilliancy, and gaiety, supported by profound good sense. When that volume is published his bust will be placed here by acclamation.’
Monday, April 19.—I dined with Lanjuinais, and met Tocqueville, Rivet, Dufaure, Corcelle, Freslon, and one or two others.
They attacked me about the change of sentiment in England with respect to Louis Napoleon.
‘While he was useful to you,’ they said, ‘you steadily refused to admit that he was a tyrant, or even an usurper. You chose to disbelieve in the 3,000 men, women, and children massacred on the Boulevards of Paris—in the 20,000 poisoned by jungle fever in Cayenne—in the 25,000 who have died of malaria, exposure, and bad food, working in gangs on the roads and in the marshes of the Metidja and Lambressa.’
‘We did not choose,’ I answered, ‘to disbelieve any thing. We were simply ignorant. I knew all these facts, because I have passed a part of every year since 1847 in Paris; because I walked along the Boulevards on the 20th of December 1851, and saw the walls of every house, from the Bastille to the Madeleine, covered with the marks of musket-balls; because I heard in every society of the thousands who had been massacred, and of the tens of thousands who had ben déportés; but the untravelled English, and even the travelled English, except the few who live in France among the French, knew nothing of all this. Your press tells nothing. The nine millions of votes given to Louis Napoleon seemed to prove his popularity, and therefore the improbability of the tyranny of which he was accused by his enemies. I knew that those nine millions of votes were extorted, or stolen by violence or fraud. But the English people did not know it. They accepted his election as the will of the nation, and though they might wonder at your choice, did not presume to blame it.’
‘The time,’ they answered, ‘at which light broke in upon you is suspicious. Up to the 14th of January 1858 the oppression under which thirty-four millions of people within twenty-four miles of your coast, with whom you are in constant intercourse, was unknown to you. Their ruler insults you, and you instantly discover that he is an usurper and a tyrant. This looks as if the insult, and the insult alone, opened your eyes.’
‘What opened our eyes,’ I answered, ‘was not the insult but the loi de sûreté publique. It was the first public act which showed to England the nature of your Government.
‘When we found, erected in every department, a revolutionary tribunal, empowered to banish and transport without trial; when we found a rude soldier made Home Minister, and the country divided into five districts to be each governed by a marshal, we saw at once that France was under a violent military despotism. Until that law was passed the surface was smooth. There was nothing in the appearance of France to show to a stranger that she was not governed by a Monarch, practically, indeed, absolute, but governing as many absolute Monarchs have done, mildly and usefully.
‘Of course we might have found out the truth sooner if we had inquired. And perhaps we ought to have inquired. We busy ourselves about our own affairs, and neglect too much those of other countries. In that sense you have a right to say that we chose to be ignorant, since our conduct was such as necessarily to make us ignorant. But it was not because Louis Napoleon was our ally that we chose to be ignorant, but because we habitually turn our eyes from the domestic affairs of the Continent, as things in which we have seldom a right to interfere, and in which, when we do interfere, we do more harm than good.’
We talked of the manner in which the loi de sûreté publique has been carried out. And I mentioned 600 as the number of those who had suffered under it, as acknowledged to me by Blanchard in the beginning of March.
‘It is much greater now,’ said Lanjuinais. ‘Berryer on his return from Italy, a week ago, slept in Marseilles. He was informed that more than 900 persons had passed through Marseilles, déportés under the new law to Algeria. They were of all classes: artisans and labourers mixed with men of the higher and middle classes. To these must be added those transported to Cayenne, who were sent by way of Havre. As for the number expulsés and internés there are no data.’
‘In the Department of Var, a man was found guilty in 1848 of joining in one of the revolutionary movements of that time. His complete innocence was soon proved; he was released, and has lived quietly on his little estate ever since. He was arrested under the new law and ordered to be déporté to Algeria. His friends, in fact all his neighbours, remonstrated, and sent to Paris the proof that the original conviction was a mistake. “Qu’il aille tout de même,” was Espinasse’s answer.
‘In Calvados the Préfet, finding no one whom he could conscientiously arrest, took hold of one of the most respectable men in the department. “If,” he said, “I had arrested a man against whom there was plausible ground for suspicion, he might have been transported. This man must be released.”’
‘Has he been released?’ I asked.
‘I have not heard,’ was the answer. ‘In all probability he has been.’
‘In my department,’ said Tocqueville, ‘the sous-préfet, ordered by the Préfet to arrest somebody in the arrondissement, was in the same perplexity as the Préfet of Calvados. “I can find no fit person,” he said to me. I believe that he reported the difficulty to the Préfet, and that the vacancy was supplied from some other arrondissement.
‘What makes this frightful,’ he added, ‘is that we now know that deportation is merely a slow death. Scarcely any of the victims of 1851 and 1852 are living.’
‘I foretold that,’ I said, ‘at the time, as you will find if you look at my article on Lamartine, published in the “Edinburgh Review.” ’1
April 20.—We talked of the political influence in France of the hommes de lettres.
‘It began,’ said Tocqueville, ‘with the Restoration. Until that time we had sometimes, though very rarely, statesmen who became writers, but never writers who became statesmen.’
‘You had hommes de lettres,’ I said, ‘in the early Revolutionary Assemblies—Mirabeau for instance.’
‘Mirabeau,’ he answered, ‘is your best example, for Mirabeau, until he became a statesman, lived by his pen. Still I should scarcely call a man of his high birth and great expectations un homme de lettres. That appellation seems to belong to a man who owes his position in early life to literature. Such a man is Thiers, or Guizot, as opposed to such men as Gladstone, Lord John Russell, or Montalembert.’
Wednesday, April 21.—I dined with D. and met, among several others, Admiral Matthieu the Imperial Hydrographer, and a general whose name I did not catch. I talked to the general about the army.
‘We are increasing it,’ he said, ‘but not very materially. We are rather giving ourselves the means of a future rapid increase, than making an immediate augmentation. We are raising the number of men from 354,000 to 392,400, in round numbers to 400,000; but the principal increase is in the cadres, the officers attached to each battalion. We have increased them by more than one third. So that if a war should break out we can instantly—that is to say in three months, increase our army to 600,000 or even 700,000 men. Soldiers are never wanting in France, the difficulty always is to find officers.’
‘I hear,’ I said, ‘that you are making great improvements in your artillery.’
‘We are,’ he answered. ‘We are applying to it the principle of the Minié musket, and we are improving the material. We hope to make our guns as capable of resisting rapid and continued firing as well and as long as the English and the Swedish guns, which are the best in Europe, can do. And we find that we can throw a ball on the Minié principle with equal precision twice as far. This will double the force of all our batteries.’
‘Are you,’ he asked me, ‘among those who have taken shares in the Russian railways?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘They are the last that I wish to encourage.’
‘Englishmen or Frenchmen,’ he answered, ‘who help Russia to make railways, put me in mind of the Dutch who sold powder to their besiegers.
‘The thinness of her population—that is, the vast space over which it is scattered—alone prevents Russia from being the mistress of Europe. If her 64,000,000 were as concentrated as our 34,000,000 are, she would be irresistible. She loses always far more men in marching than in fighting.’
‘The events of the war,’ I said, ‘lead me to believe that the goodness of the Russian soldier is exaggerated. They were always beaten, often by inferior numbers.’
‘In the first place,’ he answered, ‘those who were beaten at Sebastopol were not the best Russian soldiers. They were short small men, generally drawn from the neighbouring provinces. The Russian Imperial Guards and the Russian Army in Poland are far superior to any that we encountered in the Crimea. In the second place, they were ill commanded. The improvements of weapons, of science and of discipline, have raised the privates of all the great military nations to about the same level. Success now depends on numbers and on generalship. With railways Russia will be able to bring quickly a preponderating force to any point on her frontier. Her officers are already good, and for money she can import the best generals; indeed, I do not see why she should not breed them. Russia is civilised enough to produce men of the highest military qualities.’
I asked Admiral Matthieu about the naval preparations of France.
‘The “Moniteur,” ’ I said, ‘denies that you are making any.’
‘The “Moniteur,” ’ he answered, ‘does not tell the truth. We are augmenting largely, both the number and the efficacy of our fleet.
‘Four years ago, at the beginning of the Russian war, we resolved to build a steam fleet of 150 steam ships of different sizes for fighting, and 74 steam ships for the transfer service, and to carry fuel and stores. Though we set about this in the beginning, as we thought, of a long war, we have not allowed the peace to interrupt it. We are devoting to it sixty-five millions a year (2,600,000l.) of which from fifteen to seventeen millions are employed every year in building new ships, and from forty to forty-two in adding steam power to the old ones. We hope to finish this great work in fourteen years.’
‘What,’ I asked, ‘is the amount of your present fleet of steamers?’
‘We have thirty-three screws,’ he answered, ‘fifty-seven paddles, and sixty-two sailing vessels in commission, and seventy-three, mostly steamers, en réserve, as you would say, in ordinary.’
‘Manned by how many men?’ I asked.
‘By twenty-five thousand sailors,’ he answered, ‘and eleven thousand marines. But our inscription maritime would give us in a few months or less one hundred thousand more. Since the times of Louis XVI. the French Navy has never been so formidable, positively or relatively.’
‘How,’ I asked, ‘has your “Napoleon” succeeded?’
‘Admirably,’ he answered. ‘I have not seen the “Wellington,” but she is a much finer ship than the Agamemnon. Her speed is wonderful. A month ago she left Toulon at seven in the morning, and reached Ajaccio by four in the evening. But the great improvement is in our men. Napoleon knew nothing and cared nothing about sailors. He took no care about their training, and often wasted them in land operations, for which landsmen would have done as well.
‘In 1814 he left Toulon absolutely unguarded, and sent all the sailors to join Augereau. You might have walked into it.
‘In 1810 or 1811 I was on board a French corvette which fought an action with an English vessel, the “Lively.” We passed three times under her stern, and raked her each time. We ought to have cleared her decks. Not a shot touched her. The other day at Cherbourg I saw a broadside fired at a floating mark three cables off, the usual distance at which ships engage. Ten balls hit it, and we could see that all the others passed near enough to shake it by their wind.
‘A ship of eighty guns has now forty canonniers and forty maîtres de pièces. All practical artillerymen, and even the able seamen, can point a gun. Nelson’s manœuvre of breaking the line could not be used against a French fleet, such as a French fleet is now. The leading ships would be destroyed one after another, by the concentrated fire. Formerly our officers dreaded a maritime war. They knew that defeat awaited them, possibly death. Now they are confident, and eager to try their hands.’
In the evening L. took me into a corner, and we had a long conversation.
He had been reading my ‘Athens Journal.’
‘What struck me,’ he said, ‘in every page of it, was the resemblance of King Otho to Louis Napoleon.’
‘I see the resemblance,’ I answered, ‘but it is the resemblance of a dwarf to a giant.’
‘No,’ he replied. ‘Of a man five feet seven inches high to one five feet eleven inches. There are not more than four inches between them. There is the same cunning, the same coldness, the same vindictiveness, the same silence, the same perseverance, the same unscrupulousness, the same selfishness, the same anxiety to appear to do everything that is done, and above all, the same determination to destroy, or to seduce by corruption or by violence, every man and every institution favourable to liberty, independence, or self-government. In one respect Otho had the more difficult task. He found himself, in 1843, subject to a Constitution carefully framed under the advice of England for the express purpose of controlling him. He did not attempt to get rid of it by a coup d’état, or even to alter it, but cunningly and skilfully perverted it into an instrument of despotism. Louis Napoleon destroyed the Constitution which he found, and made a new one, copied from that which had been gradually elaborated by his uncle, which as a restraint is intentionally powerless and fraudulent.
‘A man,’ he continued, ‘may acquire influence either by possessing in a higher degree the qualities which belong to his country and to his time, or by possessing those in which they are deficient.
‘Wellington is an example of this first sort. His excellences were those of an Englishman carried almost to perfection.
‘Louis Napoleon belongs to the second. If his merits had been impetuous courage, rapidity of ideas, quickness of decision, frankness, versatility and resource, he would have been surrounded by his equals or his superiors. He predominated over those with whom he came in contact because he differed from them. Because he was calm, slow, reserved, silent, and persevering. Because he is a Dutchman, not a Frenchman.’
‘He seems,’ I said, ‘to have lost his calmness.’
‘Yes,’ answered L. ‘But under what a shock! And observe that though the greatest risk was encountered by him, the terror was greatest among his entourage. I do not believe that if he had been left to himself he would have lost his prudence or his self-possession. He did not for the first day. Passions are contagious. Everyone who approached him was agitated by terror and anger. His intrepidity and self-reliance, great as they are, were disturbed by the hubbub all round him. His great defects are three. First, his habit of self-contemplation. He belongs to the men whom the Germans call subjective, whose eye is always turned inwardly; who think only of themselves, of their own character, and of their own fortunes. Secondly, his jealousy of able men. He wishes to be what you called him, a giant, and as Nature has not made him positively tall, he tries to be comparatively so, by surrounding himself with dwarfs. His third defect is the disproportion of his wishes to his means. His desires are enormous. No power, no wealth, no expenditure would satisfy them. Even if he had his uncle’s genius and his uncle’s indefatigability, he would sink, as his uncle did, under the exorbitance of his attempts. As he is not a man of genius, or even a man of remarkable ability, as he is ignorant, uninventive and idle, you will see him flounder and fall from one failure to another.
‘During the three years that Drouyn de L’Huys was his minister he was intent on home affairs—on his marriage, on the Louvre, on the artillery, on his bonnes fortunes, and on the new delights of unbounded expenditure. He left foreign affairs altogether to his minister. When Drouyn de L’Huys left him, the road before him was plain—he had only to carry on the war. But when the war was over, the road ended; neither he nor Walewski nor any of his entourage know anything of the country in which they are travelling. You see them wandering at hazard. Sometimes trying to find their way to Russia, sometimes to England. Making a treaty with Austria, then attempting to injure her, and failing; attempting to injure Turkey, and failing; bullying Naples, and failing; threatening Switzerland, threatening Belgium, and at last demanding from England an Alien Bill, which they ought to know to be incompatible with the laws and hateful to the feelings of the people.
‘He is not satisfied with seeing the country prosperous and respected abroad. He wants to dazzle. His policy, domestic and foreign, is a policy of vanity and ostentation—motives which mislead everyone both in private and in public life.
‘His great moral merits are kindness and sympathy. He is a faithful attached friend, and wishes to serve all who come near him.
‘His greatest moral fault is his ignorance of the difference between right and wrong; perhaps his natural insensibility to it, his want of the organs by which that difference is perceived—a defect which he inherits from his uncle.’
‘The uncle,’ I said, ‘had at least one moral sense—he could understand the difference between pecuniary honesty and dishonesty, a difference which this man seems not to see, or not to value.’
‘I agree with you,’ said L. ‘He cannot value it, or he would not look complacently on the peculation which surrounds him. Every six months some magnificent hotel rises in the Champs Elysées, built by a man who had nothing, and has been a minister for a year or two.’
On my return I found Tocqueville with the ladies. I gave him an outline of what L. had said.
‘No one,’ he said, ‘knows Louis Napoleon better than L.’
‘My opportunities of judging him have been much fewer, but as far as they have gone, they lead to the same conclusions. L. perhaps has not dwelt enough on his indolence. Probably as he grows older, and the effects of his early habits tell on him, it increases. I am told that it is difficult to make him attend to business, that he prolongs audiences apparently to kill time.
‘One of the few of my acquaintances who go near him, was detained by him for an hour to answer questions about the members of the Corps législatif. Louis Napoleon inquired about their families, their fortunes, their previous histories. Nothing about their personal qualities. These are things that do not interest him. He supposes that men differ only in externals. “That the fond is the same in everyone.” ’
April 26.—Tocqueville spent the evening with us.
We talked of Novels.
‘I read none,’ he said, ‘that end ill. Why should one voluntarily subject oneself to painful emotions? To emotions created by an imaginary cause and therefore impelling you to no action. I like vivid emotions, but I seek them in real life, in society, in travelling, in business, but above all in political business. There is no happiness comparable to political success, when your own excitement is justified by the magnitude of the questions at issue, and is doubled and redoubled by the sympathy of your supporters. Having enjoyed that, I am ashamed of being excited by the visionary sorrows of heroes and heroines.
‘I had a friend,’ he continued, ‘a Benedictine, who is now ninety-seven. He was, therefore, about thirteen when Louis XVI. began to reign. He is a man of talents and knowledge, has always lived in the world, has attended to all that he has seen and heard, and is still unimpaired in mind, and so strong in body that when I leave him he goes down to embrace me, after the fashion of the eighteenth century, at the bottom of his staircase.’
‘And what effect,’ I asked, ‘has the contemplation of seventy years of revolution produced in him? Does he look back, like Talleyrand, to the ancien régime as a golden age?’
‘He admits,’ said Tocqueville, ‘the material superiority of our own age, but he believes that, intellectually and morally, we are far inferior to our grandfathers. And I agree with him. Those seventy years of revolution have destroyed our courage, our hopefulness, our self-reliance, our public spirit, and, as respects by far the majority of the higher classes, our passions, except the vulgarest and most selfish ones—vanity and covetousness. Even ambition seems extinct. The men who seek power, seek it not for itself, not as the means of doing good to their country, but as a means of getting money and flatterers.
‘It is remarkable,’ he continued, ‘that women whose influence is generally greatest under despotisms, have none now. They have lost it, partly in consequence of the gross vulgarity of our dominant passions, and partly from their own nullity. They are like London houses, all built and furnished on exactly the same model, and that a most uninteresting one. Whether a girl is bred up at home or in a convent, she has the same masters, gets a smattering of the same accomplishments, reads the same dull books, and contributes to society the same little contingent of superficial information.
‘When a young lady comes out I know beforehand how her mother and her aunts will describe her. “Elle a les goûts simples. Elle est pieuse. Elle aime la campagne. Elle aime la lecture. Elle n’aime pas le bal. Elle n’aime pas le monde, elle y ira seulement pour plaire à sa mère.” I try sometimes to escape from these generalities, but there is nothing behind them.’
‘And how long,’ I asked, ‘does this simple, pious, retiring character last?’
‘Till the orange flowers of her wedding chaplet are withered,’ he answered. ‘In three months she goes to the messe d’une heure.’
‘What is the “messe d’une heure?” ’ I asked.
‘A priest,’ he answered, ‘must celebrate Mass fasting; and in strictness ought to do so before noon. But to accommodate fashionable ladies who cannot rise by noon, priests are found who will starve all the morning, and say Mass in the afternoon. It is an irregular proceeding, though winked at by the ecclesiastical authorities. Still to attend it is rather discreditable; it is a middle term between the highly meritorious practice of going to early Mass, and the scandalous one of never going at all.’
‘What was the education,’ I asked, ‘of women under the ancien régime?’
‘The convent,’ he answered.
‘It must have been better,’ I said, ‘than the present education, since the women of that time were superior to ours.’
‘It was so far better,’ he answered, ‘that it did no harm. A girl at that time was taught nothing. She came from the convent a sheet of white paper. Now her mind is a paper scribbled over with trash. The women of that time were thrown into a world far superior to ours, and with the sagacity, curiosity, and flexibility of French women, caught knowledge and tact and expression from the men.
‘I knew well,’ he continued, ‘Madame Récamier. Few traces of her former beauty then remained, but we were all her lovers and her slaves. The talent, labour, and skill which she wasted in her salon, would have gained and governed an empire. She was virtuous, if it be virtuous to persuade every one of a dozen men that you wish to favour him, though some circumstance always occurs to prevent your doing so. Every friend thought himself preferred. She governed us by little distinctions, by letting one man come five minutes before the others, or stay five minutes after. Just as Louis XIV. raised one courtier to the seventh heaven by giving him the bougeoir, and another by leaning on his arm, or taking his shirt from him.
‘She said little, but knew what each man’s fort was, and placed from time to time a mot which led him to it. If anything were peculiarly well said, her face brightened. You saw that her attention was always active and always intelligent.
‘And yet I doubt whether she really enjoyed conversation. Tenir salon was to her a game, which she played well, and almost always successfully, but she must sometimes have been exhausted by the effort. Her salon was perhaps pleasanter to us than it was to herself.
‘One of the last,’ he continued, ‘of that class of potentates was the Duchesse de Dino. Her early married life was active and brilliant, but not intellectually. It was not till about forty, when she had exhausted other excitements, that she took to bel esprit. But she performed her part as if she had been bred to it.’
This was our last conversation. I left Paris the next day, and we never met again.
See Journals in France and Italy.—Ed.