Alexis de Tocqueville on the French Revolution

The nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) was a historian, social critic, and politician who wrote a vastly influential work entitled The Old Régime and the French Revolution (1856). Tocqueville worried that although the revolutionary legacy was still alive and well, liberty was no longer its primary objective. He believed, indeed, that it had been a casualty of how the French Revolution emerged. He feared that just as the first Republic had fallen to Napoleon and the second had succumbed to his nephew Napoleon III, all future revolutions might experience the same fate. Here he ruminates about the shortcomings of the French Revolution.


I do not need to tell you how much your last letter interested me, and how much I agree with you on the greater part of the things you said in it and, among others, on the value of liberty, Like you, I have never been more profoundly convinced that it alone can give to human societies in general, to the individuals who compose them in particular, all the prosperity and all the grandeur of which our species is capable. Each day drives me more deeply into this belief: my observations as I live, the recollections of history, contemporary events, foreign nations, our own, all concur in giving to these opinions of our youth the character of an absolute conviction. That liberty is the necessary condition without which there has never been a truly great and virile nation, that for me is itself conclusive evidence. I have, on this point, a faith that I would very much like to have on many others. But how difficult it is to establish liberty solidly among people who have lost the practice of it, and even the correct notion of it! What greater impotence than that of institutions, when ideas and mores do not nourish them! I have always believed that the endeavor of making France a free nation (in the true sense of the word), that this endeavor, to which, for our small part, we have consecrated our lives, I have always believed, I say, that this endeavor was noble and bold. I find it to be bolder every day, but at the same time to be nobler, so that, if I could be reborn, I would prefer to risk myself completely in this daring adventure than to bend under the necessity of being a servant. Will others be happier than we have been? I do not know. But I am convinced that, in our day, we will not see a free society in France, at least what we understand by that word. That does not mean that we will not see a revolution there. There is nothing set, I assure you. An unforeseen circumstance, a new turn of affairs, any accident whatever can lead to extraordinary events that would force each to come out of his hole. That is what I referred to in my last letter, and not to the establishment of a regular liberty. Nothing can make us free, for a long time to come, for the best of reasons, which is that we do not seriously want to be free. That is, after all, the very core of the difficulty. It is not that I am one of those who say that we are a decrepit and corrupt nation, destined forever to servitude. Those who fear that it will be thus, and those who hope for it, those who, in this view, point out the vices of the Roman Empire, those who delight in the idea that we are going to reproduce that image on a small scale, all those people, as I see it, are living in books and not in the reality of their time. We are not a decrepit nation, but a nation tired and frightened of anarchy. We lack the healthy and lofty notion of liberty, but we deserve better than our current fate. We are not yet ripe for the regular and definitive establishment of despotism, and the government will become aware of this, if it ever has the misfortune of founding itself solidly enough to discourage conspiracies, to make the anarchist parties put down their arms, and to tame them to the point that they seem to disappear from the scene. It will then be completely astonished, in the midst of its triumph, to find a layer of Frondeurs [participants in a seventeenth century revolt against the monarchy] and opponents underneath the thick layer of fawners who seem today to cover the entire ground of France. Sometimes I think that the only chance that remains for seeing the lively taste for liberty reborn in France is in the tranquil and, on the surface, final establishment of despotism. Notice the mechanism of all our revolutions; it can be described very exactly today: the experience of these last seventy years has proved that the people alone cannot make a revolution; as long as this necessary element of revolutions is isolated, it is powerless. It becomes irresistible only at the moment when one part of the enlightened classes comes to unite with it, and such men lend it their moral support or their material cooperation only at the moment when they no longer fear it. From this one can conclude that it has been at the very moment when each of our governments in the last sixty years has appeared the strongest that it began to be stricken by the malady that made it perish. The Restoration began to die the day no one any longer spoke of killing it; hence the July government. It will doubtless be the same for the current government. Antonin will tell one day if I am wrong.

Please forgive all this chattering by a sick man who is beginning to grow well again and who is amusing himself by chatting without constraint, but also with little usefulness.

I just put in the mail La Revue des Deux-Mondes of the 1st of January and the Edinburgh Review of the same date. La Revue des Deux-Mondes did not seem to me to contain anything outstanding. It contains a sequel to the maritime stories of Jurien de la Graviere. You will find yet two more of them in the following reviews. The work is serious and has interested me. It gives precious insights into the old French navy and even into the old society. The author does not lack a good eye and, except for some little sentimental and ridiculous anecdotes, his work can be read, in my opinion, pleasurably and even profitably. The last article, which you do not know, contains a picture of the cadets of noble family, in the Old Regime, that would not dishonor a master.

I particularly recommend that you read the article in the Edinburgh Review on India. It is by Reeve. It is one of the best he has done, and I know of nothing that gives in so few words so many correct and important notions on that country. The article on Pitt is by G. Lewis. It is interesting and is altogether Lewis, exact, colorless, and cold, as interesting and as true as an engraved portrait can be, in which the features are reproduced and the soul is lacking . . . changes that were made in the social state, in the institutions, in the mind and in the mores of the French as the Revolution progressed, that is my subject. For seeing it well, I have up to now found only one way; that is to live, in some manner, each moment of the Revolution with the contemporaries by reading, not what has been said of them or what they said of themselves since, but what they themselves were saying then, and, as much as possible, by discovering what they were really thinking. The minor writings of the time, private correspondence . . . are even more effective in reaching this goal than the debates of the assemblies. By the route I am taking, I am reaching the goal I am setting for myself, which is to place myself successively in the midst of the time. But the process is so slow that I often despair of it. Yet, is there any other?

There is besides something special in this malady of the French Revolution that I feel without being able to describe it well or to analyze its causes. It is a virus of a new and unknown kind. There were violent revolutions in the world, but the immoderate, violent, radical, desperate, audacious, almost mad, and nonetheless powerful and effective character of these revolutionaries is without precedent, it seems to me, in the great social agitations of past centuries. From whence came this new race? What produced it? What made it so effective? What is perpetuating it? For we are still faced with the same men, although the circumstances are different, and they have founded a family in the whole civilized world. My mind is worn out with forming a clear notion of this object and with looking for ways of painting it well. Independent of every thing that is accounted for in the French Revolution, there is something unaccounted for in its spirit and its acts. I sense where the unknown object is, but try as I may, I cannot raise the veil that covers it. I feel this object as if through a strange body, preventing me from either touching it well or seeing it.

1The Fronde was an unsuccessful rebellion in the seventeenth century against a very young Louis XIV. The Frondeurs were generally members of the nobility trying to gain power from the King and the bourgeoisie.

Source: Alexis de Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Politics and Society, ed. Roger Boesche, trans. James Toupin and Roger Boesche (Berkeley, CA: The Regents of the University of California, 1985), 366–68, 373. Copyright © 1985 The Regents of the University of California.