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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
France under the Rule of the Middle Class
By Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)
 
From the ‘Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville’: Translation of Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

OUR history from 1789 to 1830, if viewed from a distance and as a whole, affords as it were the picture of a struggle to the death between the Ancien Régime—its traditions, memories, hopes, and men, as represented by the aristocracy—and New France under the leadership of the middle class. The year 1830 closed the first period of our revolutions; or rather of our revolution, for there is but one, which has remained always the same in the face of varying fortunes,—of which our fathers witnessed the commencement, and of which we, in all probability, shall not live to behold the end. In 1830 the triumph of the middle class had been definite; and so thorough that all political power, every franchise, every prerogative, and the whole government, was confined, and as it were heaped up, within the narrow limits of this one class, to the statutory exclusion of all beneath them, and the actual exclusion of all above. Not only did it thus alone rule society, but it may be said to have formed it. It ensconced itself in every vacant place, prodigiously augmented the number of places, and accustomed itself to live almost as much upon the treasury as upon its own industry.  1
  No sooner had the Revolution of 1830 become an accomplished fact, than there ensued a great lull in political passion, a sort of general subsidence, accompanied by a rapid increase in the public wealth. The particular spirit of the middle class became the general spirit of the government; it ruled the latter’s foreign policy as well as affairs at home: an active, industrious spirit, often dishonorable, generally sober, occasionally reckless through vanity or egotism, but timid by temperament, moderate in all things except in its love of ease and comfort, and wholly undistinguished. It was a spirit, which, mingled with that of the people or of the aristocracy, can do wonders; but which by itself will never produce more than a government shorn of both virtue and greatness. Master of everything in a manner that no aristocracy had ever been or may ever hope to be, the middle class, when called upon to assume the government, took it up as a trade; it intrenched itself behind its power: and before long, in their egoism, each of its members thought much more of his private business than of public affairs, and of his personal enjoyment than of the greatness of the nation.  2
  Posterity, which sees none but the more dazzling crimes, and which loses sight in general of mere vices, will never perhaps know to what extent the government of that day, towards its close, assumed the ways of a trading company, which conducts all its transactions with a view to the profits accruing to the shareholders. These vices were due to the natural instincts of the dominant class, to the absoluteness of its power, and also to the character of the time. Possibly also King Louis Philippe had contributed to their growth.  3
  This prince was a singular medley of qualities, and one must have known him longer and more nearly than I did to be able to portray him in detail.  4
  Nevertheless, although I was never one of his Council, I have frequently had occasion to come into contact with him. The last time that I spoke to him was shortly before the catastrophe of February [1848]. I was then director of the Académie Française, and I had to bring to the King’s notice some matter or other which concerned that body. After treating the question which had brought me, I was about to retire, when the King detained me, took a chair, motioned me to another, and said affably:—  5
  “Since you are here, Monsieur de Tocqueville, let us talk: I want to hear you talk a little about America.”  6
  I knew him well enough to know that this meant, “I shall talk about America myself.” And he did actually talk of it at great length and very searchingly: it was not possible for me to get in a word; nor did I desire to do so, for he really interested me. He described places as if he saw them before him; he recalled the distinguished men whom he had met forty years ago as if he had seen them the day before; he mentioned their names in full, Christian name and surname, gave their ages at the time, related their histories, their pedigrees, their posterity, with marvelous exactness, and with infinite though in no way tedious detail. From America he returned, without taking breath, to Europe; talked of all our foreign and domestic affairs with incredible unconstraint (for I had no title to his confidence); spoke very badly of the Emperor of Russia, whom he called “Monsieur Nicolas”; casually alluded to Lord Palmerston as a rogue; and ended by holding forth at length on the Spanish marriages, which had just taken place, and the annoyances to which they subjected him on the side of England.  7
  “The Queen is very angry with me,” he said, “and displays great irritation; but after all,” he added, “all this outcry won’t keep me from driving my own cart.”  8
  Although this phrase dated back to the Old Order, I felt inclined to doubt whether Louis XIV. ever made use of it on accepting the Spanish Succession. I believe, moreover, that Louis Philippe was mistaken; and to borrow his own language, that the Spanish marriages helped not a little to upset his cart.  9
  After three quarters of an hour the King rose, thanked me for the pleasure my conversation had given him (I had not spoken four words), and dismissed me, feeling evidently as delighted as one generally is with a man before whom one thinks one has spoken well. This was my last audience of the King.  10
  Louis Philippe improvised all the replies which he made, even upon the most critical occasions, to the great State bodies; he was as fluent then as in his private conversation, although not so happy or epigrammatic. He would suddenly become obscure, for the reason that he boldly plunged headlong into long sentences, of which he was not able to estimate the extent nor perceive the end beforehand; and from which he finally emerged struggling and by force, shattering the sense and not completing the thought.  11
  In this political world thus constituted and conducted, what was most wanting, particularly towards the end, was political life itself. It could neither come into being nor be maintained within the legal circle which the Constitution had traced for it: the old aristocracy was vanquished, the people excluded. As all business was discussed among members of one class, in the interest and in the spirit of that class, there was no battle-field for contending parties to meet upon. This singular homogeneity of position, of interests, and consequently of views, reigning in what M. Guizot had once called the legal country, deprived the parliamentary debates of all originality, of all reality, and therefore of all genuine passion. I have spent ten years of my life in the company of truly great minds, who were in a constant state of agitation without succeeding in heating themselves, and who spent all their perspicacity in vain endeavors to find subjects upon which they could seriously disagree.  12
  On the other hand, the preponderating influence which King Louis Philippe had acquired in public affairs, which never permitted the politicians to stray very far from that prince’s ideas lest they should at the same time be removed from power, reduced the different colors of parties to the merest shades, and debates to the splitting of straws. I doubt whether any Parliament (not excepting the Constituent Assembly,—I mean the true one, that of 1789) ever contained more varied and brilliant talents than did ours during the closing years of the Monarchy of July. Nevertheless I am able to declare that these great orators were tired to death of listening to one another, and what was worse, the whole country was tired of listening to them. It grew unconsciously accustomed to look upon the debates in the Chambers as exercises of the intellect rather than as serious discussions, and upon all the differences between the various Parliamentary parties—the majority, the left centre, or the dynastic opposition—as domestic quarrels between children of one family trying to trick one another. A few glaring instances of corruption, discovered by accident, led it to presuppose a number of hidden cases, and convinced it that the whole of the governing class was corrupt; whence it conceived for the latter a silent contempt, which was generally taken for confiding and contented submission.  13
  The country was at that time divided into two unequal parts, or rather zones: in the upper, which alone was intended to contain the whole of the nation’s political life, there reigned nothing but languor, impotence, stagnation, and boredom; in the lower, on the contrary, political life began to make itself manifest by means of feverish and irregular signs, of which the attentive observer was easily able to seize the meaning.  14
  I was one of these observers; and although I was far from imagining that the catastrophe was so near at hand and fated to be so terrible, I felt a distrust springing up and insensibly growing in my mind, and the idea taking root more and more that we were making strides towards a fresh revolution. This denoted a great change in my thoughts; since the general appeasement and flatness that followed the Revolution of July had led me to believe for a long time that I was destined to spend my life amid an enervated and peaceful society. Indeed, any one who had only examined the inside of the governmental fabric would have had the same conviction. Everything there seemed combined to produce with the machinery of liberty a preponderance of royal power which verged upon despotism; and in fact, this result was produced almost without effort by the regular and tranquil movement of the machine. King Louis Philippe was persuaded that so long as he did not himself lay hand upon that fine instrument, and allowed it to work according to rule, he was safe from all peril. His only occupation was to keep it in order and to make it work according to his own views, forgetful of society upon which this ingenious piece of mechanism rested; he resembled the man who refused to believe that his house was on fire, because he had the key in his pocket. I had neither the same interests nor the same cares; and this permitted me to see through the mechanism of institutions and the agglomeration of petty every-day facts, and to observe the state of morals and opinions in the country. There I clearly beheld the appearance of several of the portents that usually denote the approach of revolutions; and I began to believe that in 1830 I had taken for the end of the play what was nothing more than the end of an act….  15
  In a speech delivered in the Chamber of Deputies, January 29th, 1848, I said:—  16
  “I am told that there is no danger because there are no riots; I am told that because there is no visible disorder on the surface of society, there is no revolution at hand.  17
  “Gentlemen, permit me to say that I believe you are deceived. True, there is no actual disorder; but it has entered deeply into men’s minds. See what is passing in the breasts of the working classes,—who, I grant, are at present quiet. No doubt they are not disturbed by political passion, properly so called, to the same extent that they have been; but can you not see that their passions, instead of political, have become social? Do you not see that there are gradually forming in their breasts opinions and ideas which are destined not only to upset this or that law, ministry, or even form of government, but society itself, until it totters upon the foundations on which it rests to-day? Do you not listen to what they say to themselves each day? Do you not hear them repeating unceasingly that all that is above them is incapable and unworthy of governing them; that the present distribution of goods throughout the world is unjust; that property rests on a foundation which is not an equitable foundation? And do you not realize that when such opinions take root, when they spread in an almost universal manner, when they sink deeply into the masses, they are bound to bring with them sooner or later, I know not when nor how, a most formidable revolution?  18
  “This, gentlemen, is my profound conviction: I believe that we are at this moment sleeping on a volcano. I am profoundly convinced of it.”  19
 
 
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