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Tocqueville on the 1848 Revolution in Paris (1851)

The French aristocrat and liberal politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was elected to the Constituent Assembly in April 1848 following the revolution in February. He played a major role by serving on the committee to draw up a new constitution for the French Republic. Here are his reflections on the first days of the new Constituent Assembly in May in which he emphasized the threat to property by the revolutionary crowds:

One thing was not ridiculous, but really ominous and terrible; and that was the appearance of Paris on my return. I found in the capital a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, out of work, dying of hunger, but with their minds crammed with vain theories and visionary hopes. I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in a common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror. There were no bonds, no sympathy between these two great sections; everywhere the idea of an inevitable and immediate struggle seemed at hand. Already the bourgeois and the peuple (for the old nicknames had been resumed) had come to blows, with varying fortunes, at Rouen, Limoges, Paris; not a day passed but the owners of property were attacked or menaced in either their capital or income…

One thing was not ridiculous, but really ominous and terrible; and that was the appearance of Paris on my return. I found in the capital a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, out of work, dying of hunger, but with their minds crammed with vain theories and visionary hopes. I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in a common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror. There were no bonds, no sympathy between these two great sections; everywhere the idea of an inevitable and immediate struggle seemed at hand. Already the bourgeois and the peuple (for the old nicknames had been resumed) had come to blows, with varying fortunes, at Rouen, Limoges, Paris; not a day passed but the owners of property were attacked or menaced in either their capital or income: they were asked to employ labour without selling the produce; they were expected to remit the rents of their tenants when they themselves possessed no other means of living. They gave way as long as they could to this tyranny, and endeavoured at least to turn their weakness to account by publishing it. I remember reading in the papers of that time this advertisement, among others, which still strikes me as a model of vanity, poltroonery, and stupidity harmoniously mingled:

“Mr Editor,” it read, “I make use of your paper to inform my tenants that, desiring to put into practice in my relations with them the principles of fraternity that should guide all true democrats, I will hand to those of my tenants who apply for it a formal receipt for their next quarter’s rent.”

Meanwhile, a gloomy despair had overspread the middle class thus threatened and oppressed, and imperceptibly this despair was changing into courage. I had always believed that it was useless to hope to settle the movement of the Revolution of February peacefully and gradually, and that it could only be stopped suddenly, by a great battle fought in the streets of Paris. I had said this immediately after the 24th of February; and what I now saw persuaded me that this battle was not only inevitable but imminent, and that it would be well to seize the first opportunity to deliver it.

The National Assembly met at last on the 4th of May; it was doubtful until the last moment whether it would meet at all. I believe, in fact, that the more ardent of the demagogues were often tempted to do without it, but they dared not; they remained crushed beneath the weight of their own dogma of the sovereignty of the people.

About this Quotation:

Classical liberals were faced with a dilemma during the 1848 Revolutions which broke out in many European countries. Democratic liberals like Bastiat were glad that the privileged order of the Old Regime had been broken and that much needed political reforms such as freedom of speech and broader electoral representation were introduced. On the other hand, they were concerned that the result of this democracy would lead to the rise of socialist groups who would demand that their representatives would provide them with various forms of state supported welfare such as unemployment relief. Conservative liberals like Tocqueville were so worried about the threat to property that they thought the socialist groups should be dealt with harshly by the police and the military, which they were during the “June Days” uprising. Bastiat thought this threat could be handled through discussion in the parliament or in committees such as the finance committee on which he served. Neither group foresaw what the voters ultimately chose: the return of a new dictator in the form of another Emperor Napoléon.

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