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The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Tags: History » Memoirs » Society and Politics

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Alexis de Tocqueville was a French diplomat, political scientist and historian. This book is a private journal regarding the French Revolution of 1848, which de Tocqueville never intended to be published.

This book has 252 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1896.

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Excerpt from 'The Recollections of Alexis 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.

In taking this resolve I have taken another, to which I shall be no less true: these recollections shall be a relaxation of the mind rather than a contribution to literature. I write them for myself alone. They shall be a mirror in which I will amuse myself in contemplating my contemporaries and myself; not a picture painted for the public. My most intimate friends shall not see them, for I wish to retain the liberty of depicting them as I shall depict myself, without flattery. I wish to arrive truly at the secret motives which have caused them, and me, and others to act; and, when discovered, to reveal them here. In a word, I wish this expression of my recollections to be a sincere one; and to effect this, it is essential that it should remain absolutely secret.

I intend that my recollections shall not go farther back than the Revolution of 1848, nor extend to a later date than the 30th of October 1849, the day upon which I resigned my office. It is only within these limits that the events which I propose to relate have any importance, or that my position has enabled me to observe them well.

My life was passed, although in a comparatively secluded fashion, in the midst of the parliamentary world of the closing years of the Monarchy of July. Nevertheless, it would be no easy task for me to recall distinctly the events of a period so little removed from the present, and yet leaving so confused a trace in my memory. The thread of my recollections is lost amid the whirl of minor incidents, of paltry ideas, of petty passions, of personal views and contradictory opinions in which the life of public men was at that time spent. All that remains vivid in my mind is the general aspect of  the period; for I often regarded it with a curiosity mingled with dread, and I clearly discerned the special features by which it was characterized.

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.

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 dishonourable, generally sober, occasionally reckless through vanity or egoism, 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 entrenched 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.

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.

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.

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. 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:

"Since you are here, Monsieur de Tocqueville, let us talk; I want to hear you talk a little about America."

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