Alexis de Tocqueville
“C’est tousiours plaisir de veoir les
choses escriptes par ceulx qui ont essayé
comme il les faut conduire.”
Alexis de Tocqueville made his entrance in political life in 1839. At the outbreak of the Revolution of February he was in the prime of his age and in the maturity of his talent. He threw himself into the struggle, resolving to devote himself to the interests of the country and of society, and he was one of the first among those whole-hearted, single-minded men who endeavoured to keep the Republic within a wise and moderate course by steering clear of the two-fold perils of Cæsarism on the one hand and revolution on the other. A dangerous and thankless enterprise, of which the difficulties were never hidden from a mind so clear-sighted as his, and of which he soon foresaw the ephemeral duration.
After the fall of his short-lived ministry, which had been filled with so many cares and such violent agitation, thinking himself removed for a time (it was to be for ever) from the conduct of public affairs, he went first to Normandy and then to Sorrento, on the Bay of Naples, in search of the peace and repose of which he stood in need. The intellect, however, but rarely shows itself the docile slave of the will, and his, to which idleness was a cause of real suffering, immediately set about to seek an object worthy of its attention. This was soon found in the great drama of the French Revolution, which attracted him irresistibly, and which was destined to form the subject-matter of his most perfect work.
It was at this time, while Alexis de Tocqueville was also preoccupied by the daily increasing gravity of the political situation at home, that he wrote the Recollections now first published. These consisted of mere notes jotted down at intervals on odds and ends of paper; and it was not until the close of his life that, yielding to the persuasions of his intimates, he gave a reluctant consent to their publication. He took a certain pleasure in thus retracing and, as it were, re-enacting the events in which he had taken part, the character of which seemed the more transient, and the more important to establish definitely, inasmuch as other events came crowding on, precipitating the crisis and altering the aspect of affairs. Thus those travellers who, steering their adventurous course through a series of dangerous reefs, alight upon a wild and rugged island, where they disembark and live for some days, and when about to depart for ever from its shores, throw back upon it a long and melancholy gaze before it sinks from their eyes in the immensity of the waves. Already the Assembly had lost its independence; the reign of constitutional liberty, under which France had lived for thirty-three years, was giving way; and, in the words of the famous phrase, “The Empire was a fact.”
We are to-day well able to judge the period described in these Recollections, a period which seems still further removed from us by the revolutions, the wars, and even the misfortunes which the country has since undergone, and which now only appears to us in that subdued light which throws the principal outlines into especial relief, while permitting the more observant and penetrating eye to discover also the secondary features. Living close enough to those times to receive evidence from the lips of survivors, and not so close but that all passion has become appeased and all rancour extinguished, we should be in a position to lack neither light nor impartiality. As witness, for instance, the impression retained by us of the figure of Ledru-Rollin, which nevertheless terrified our fathers. We live in a generation which has beheld Raoul, Rigault and Delescluze at work. The theories of Louis Blanc and Considérant arouse no feeling of astonishment in these days, when their ideas have become current coin, and when the majority of politicians feel called upon to adopt the badge of some socialism or other, whether we call it Christian, State, or revolutionary socialism. Cormenin, Marrast and Lamartine belong to history as much as do Sièyes, Pétion or Mirabeau; and we are able to judge as freely of the men and the events of 1848 as of those of 1830 or 1789.
Alexis de Tocqueville had the rare merit of being able to forestall this verdict of posterity; and if we endeavour to discover the secret of this prescience, of the loftiness of sight with which he was so specially gifted, we shall find that, belonging to no party, he remained above all parties; that, depending upon no leader, he kept his hands free; and that, possessed of no vulgar ambition, he reserved his energies for the noble aim which he had in view — the triumph of liberty and of the dignity of man.
Interest will doubtless be taken in the account contained in these Recollections of the revolutionary period, written by one of the best-informed of its witnesses, and in the ebbs and flows of the short-lived ministry which was conducted with so much talent and integrity. But what will be especially welcome is the broad views taken by this great mind of our collective history; his profound reflections upon the future of the country and of society; the firm and conscientious opinions which he expresses upon his contemporaries; and the portraits drawn by a master hand, always striking and always alive. When reading this private record, which has been neither revised nor corrected by its author, we seem to approach more closely to the sentiments, the desires, the aspirations, I was almost saying the dreams of this rare mind, this great heart so ardently pursuing the chimera of absolute good that nothing in men or institutions could succeed in satisfying it.
Years passed, and the Empire foundered amid terrible disaster. Alexis de Tocqueville was no more; and we may say that this proved at that time an irreparable loss to his country. Who knows what part he might have been called upon to play, what influence he could have brought to bear to unmask the guilty intrigues and baffle the mean ambitions under whose load, after the lapse of more than twenty years, we are still staggering? Enlightened by his harsh experience of 1848, would he have once again tried the experiment, which can never be more than an eternal stop-gap, of governing the Republic with the support of the Monarchists? Or rather, persuaded as he was that “the republican form of government is not the best suited to the needs of France,” that this “government without stability always promises more, but gives less, liberty than a Constitutional Monarchy,” would he not have appealed to the latter to protect the liberty so dear to him? One thing is certain, that he would never have “subordinated to the necessity of maintaining his position that of remaining true to himself.”
We have thought that the present generation, which so rarely has the opportunity of beholding a man of character, would take pleasure in becoming acquainted with this great and stately figure; in spending some short moments in those lofty regions, in which it may learn a powerful lesson and find an example of public life in its noblest form, ever faithful to its early aspirations, ever filled with two great ideas: the cult of honour and the passion of liberty.
Comte de Tocqueville.
Removed for a time from the scene of public life, I am constrained, in the midst of my solitude, to turn my thoughts upon myself, or rather to reflect upon contemporary events in which I have taken part or acted as a witness. And it seems to me that the best use I can make of my leisure is to retrace these events, to portray the men who took part in them under my eyes, and thus to seize and engrave, if I can, upon my memory the confused features which compose the disturbed physiognomy of my time.