Tocqueville and Bastiat on the 1848 Revolution in Paris

This very nice image of Alexis de Tocqueville (with signature) comes from a 1896 translation of his memoir or "recollection"' of the 1848 Revolution in France. It is described as a "heliogravure" which is a form of photogravure whereby a copper plate is covered by a light sensitive sheet which has been exposed to the image and then etched, leaving a precise reproduction. In the picture Tocqueville looks to be the right age (about 43) for this to be an image taken at about the same time as the events discussed in his "recollections". In the accompanying essay we display this image with a quotation from the Recollections about the first day he sat in the Constituent Assembly in May 1848. Alongside this we also have a similar picture of and quotation from Frédéric Bastiat who was also a Deputy in the Constituent Assembly.

Alexis de Tocqueville in 1848
[See larger image 750 px]

The revolution which overthrew the July Monarchy of King Louis Philippe broke out on 23 February 1848. It led to the formation of a Provisional Government on 26 February and then elections for a Constituent Assembl on 23 April which then sat for the first time on 4 May. The aristocratic, conservative liberal Alexis de Tocqueville was elected to the Constituent Assembly to represent the Department of the Manche and served on the committee charged with developing a new constitution for the Second Republic. His memoirs of these events can be found in his book Recollections which he wrote 1850-51. We reproduce here his thoughts on the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly:

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.

Source: Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, edited by the Comte de Tocqueville and now first translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. With a portrait in Heliogravure (New York: Macmillan, 1896). Chapter: CHAPTER V: THE FIRST SITTING OF THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY—THE APPEARANCE OF THIS ASSEMBLY. </title/2421/229283/3899956>

Frédéric Bastiat (1852)
[Source: Dictionnaire de l'économie politique (1852)]

Another liberal who was elected to the Constituent Assembly was the free market economist and campaigner for free trade Frédéric Bastiat. He was elected in April 1848 to represent the Department of Les Landes in south west France. Bastiat served on the finance committee of the Assembly and usually sat and voted with the centre left group. Here are his impressions of the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly from his letters which have been translated and published by Liberty Fund:

98. Letter to Richard Cobden, Paris, 11 May 1848

My dear Cobden, it is impossible for me to write to you in any length. Besides, what would I say to you? How can I foretell what will come out of an assembly of nine hundred people who are not restricted by any rule or precedent, who do not know one another, who are under the sway of so many errors, who have to satisfy so many just and illusory hopes, and who, in spite of this, have difficulty in listening to each other and debating because of their numbers and the huge size of the hall? All that I can say is that the National Assembly has good intentions. A democratic spirit reigns there. I would have liked to say as much of the spirit of peace and nonintervention. We will know the outcome on Monday. This is the day set for discussions on Poland and Italy.

In the meantime, I will go straight to the subject of my letter.

You know that a workers’ commission used to meet at the Luxembourg Palace under the chairmanship of M. Louis Blanc. The presence of the National Assembly dispersed it, but it was quick to set up a commission responsible for carrying out an inquiry on the situation of industrial and agricultural workers and suggest ways of improving their lot.

This is a huge task, which the current illusions are making very hazardous.

I have been called upon to take part in this commission. I was fairly nominated, after I set out my doctrines frankly, but above all from the point of view of property rights. I am having printed what I said, which succeeded in having me nominated, in an article entitled Property and Law, which will be appearing in the next issue of Le Journal des économistes. Please read it.

I now want to use this inquiry to bring truth out into the open. Whether I am right or wrong, we need the truth. In France, we do not have much experience of the machinery known as a parliamentary inquiry. Do you know of any work which describes the art of organizing these inquiries so as to reveal the truth? If you know of one, please let me know, or better still send it to me.

Anti-British prejudices are still far from being extinguished here. People think that the English are devoting themselves on the continent to countering the republican policy of France and I would not put this past your aristocracy. For this reason, I will be following with great interest your new campaign in favor of political and economic reform, which may reduce the foreign influence of the squirearchy.

Source: Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011). Chapter: 98.: Letter to Richard Cobden. </title/2393/225775/3707073>.

99. Letter to Mrs. Schwabe , Paris, 17 May 1848

... The National Assembly has met. What will come out of this blazing furnace? Peace or war? Fortune or misfortune for the human race? Up to now, it has been like a child who stutters before speaking. Can you imagine a hall as big as the Place de la Concorde? In it, there are nine hundred members debating and three thousand onlookers. To have the opportunity of making yourself heard and understood, you have to utter high-pitched shouts accompanied by very emphatic hand movements, which rapidly result in an outburst of unreasonable fury in whoever is speaking. That is how we are conducting our internal proceedings. This takes up a lot of time and the general public does not have the common sense to understand that this waste of time is inevitable.

You will have learned from the newspapers of the events of the 15th. The Assembly was invaded by a horde of the populace. The pretext was a demonstration in favor of Poland. For four hours, these people endeavored to wrest from us the most subversive votes. The Assembly bore this tempest calmly, and to do justice to our population and our century I have to say that we cannot complain of any personal violence. The result of this outrage has been to make known the wishes of the entire country. It enables the executive power to take prudent measures to which it cannot have recourse if there is no provocation. It is very fortunate that things were taken so far. Without this, the aims of the seditionists would never have been so clearly seen. Their hypocrisy brought them followers. They no longer have any; they have been unmasked, and once again the finger of Providence has been seen. There were ten thousand chances that things would not turn out so well....

Source: Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011). Chapter: 99.: Letter to Mrs. Schwabe. </title/2393/225777/3707083>.