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The State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789

Alexis de Tocqueville

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L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution, or, as translated here, The State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789) is a 1856 work by Alexis de Tocqueville. One of the major historical works on French society before the Revolution, de Tocqueville goes into detail about the events and forces that led to the Revolution.

This book has 138 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1856; this translation by Henry Reeve was published in 1888.

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Excerpt from 'The State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789'

The French people made, in 1789, the greatest effort which was ever attempted by any nation to cut, so to speak, their destiny in halves, and to separate by an abyss that which they had heretofore been from that which they sought to become hereafter. For this purpose they took all sorts of precautions to carry nothing of their past with them into their new condition; they submitted to every species of constraint in order to fashion themselves otherwise than their fathers were; they neglected nothing which could efface their identity.

I have always thought that they had succeeded in this singular attempt much less than was supposed abroad, and less than they had at first supposed themselves. I was convinced that they had unconsciously retained from the former state of society most of the sentiments, the habits, and even the opinions, by means of which they had effected the destruction of that state of things; and that, without intending it, they had used its remains to rebuild the edifice of modern society, insomuch that, fully to understand the Revolution and its work, we must forget for an instant that France which we see before us, and examine in her sepulchre that France which is no more. This is what I have endeavoured to do; but I have had more difficulty than I could have supposed in accomplishing this task.

The first ages of the French Monarchy, the Middle Ages, and the Revival of Letters have each given rise to vast researches and profound disquisitions which have revealed to us not only the events of those periods of history, but the laws, the customs, and the spirit of the Government and the nation in those eras. But no one has yet taken the trouble to investigate the eighteenth century in the same manner and with the same minuteness. We suppose that we are thoroughly conversant with the French society of that date, because we clearly distinguish whatever glittered on its surface; we possess in detail the lives of the most eminent persons of that day, and the ingenuity or the eloquence of criticism has familiarised us with the compositions of the great writers who adorned it. But as for the manner in which public affairs were carried on, the practical working of institutions, the exact relation in which the different classes of society stood to each other, the condition and the feelings of those classes which were as yet neither seen nor heard beneath the prevailing opinions and manners of the country,—all our ideas are confused and often inaccurate.

I have undertaken to reach the core of this state of society under the old monarchy of France, which is still so near us in the lapse of years, but concealed from us by the Revolution.

For this purpose I have not only read over again the celebrated books which the eighteenth century produced, I have also studied a multitude of works less known and less worthy to be known, but which, from the negligence of their composition, disclose, perhaps, even better than more finished productions, the real instincts of the time. I have applied myself to investigate thoroughly all the public documents by which the French may, at the approach of the Revolution, have shown their opinions and their tastes. The regular reports of the meetings of the States, and subsequently of the Provincial Assemblies, have supplied me with a large quantity of evidence. I have especially made great use of the Instructions drawn up by the Three Orders in 1789. These Instructions, which form in the original a long series of manuscript volumes, will remain as the testament of the old society of France, the supreme record of its wishes, the authentic declaration of its last intentions. Such a document is unique in history. Yet this alone has not satisfied me.

In countries in which the Administrative Government is already powerful, there are few opinions, desires, or sorrows—there are few interests or passions—which are not sooner or later stripped bare before it. In the archives of such a Government, not only an exact notion of its procedure may be acquired, but the whole country is exhibited. Any stranger who should have access to all the confidential correspondence of the Home Department and the Prefectures of France would soon know more about the French than they know themselves. In the eighteenth century the administration of the country, as will be seen from this book, was highly centralised, very powerful, prodigiously active. It was incessantly aiding, preventing, permitting. It had much to promise—much to give. Its influence was already felt in a thousand ways, not only on the general conduct of affairs, but on the condition of families and the private life of every individual. Moreover, as this administration was without publicity, men were not afraid to lay bare before its eyes even their most secret infirmities. I have spent a great deal of time in studying what remains of its proceedings, both at Paris and in several provinces.

There, as I expected, I have found the whole structure of the old monarchy still in existence, with its opinions, its passions, its prejudices, and its usages. There every man spoke his mind and disclosed his innermost thoughts. I have thus succeeded in acquiring information on the former state of society, which those who lived in it did not possess, for I had before me that which had never been exposed to them.

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