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Burke and De Tocqueville on the French Revolution, XVI, 397, Sept. 19, 1863.
Burke and De Tocqueville on the French Revolution*
Perhaps no event in history has been so much written about as the French Revolution, and perhaps there is none in which we are so much mocked with the outside both of history and of speculation. Every one can see, on the very first view of the subject, that the event was one which required to be explained by general causes, and every one can see equally well, that the incidents of the revolution were picturesque beyond all former experience. It was also a subject on which every one had eager sympathies. Hence most of the books written about it have been filled with plausible generalities, more or less amusing details, and vehement party arguments.

Hardly a single writer on either side of the Channel has ever appeared to see what was meant by understanding the subject. We always seen to be reading either anecdotes, metaphysical abstractions, or pamphlets. To adjust the particular facts exactly, or even tolerably well, to general maxims sufficiently wide to render the facts comprehensible, and not sufficiently wide to fit everything equally well, is a great achievement. Hardly any one can do it at any time, and it would seem to be impossible to do it at all in a satisfactory manner till after the lapse of a time considerable enough to cool down party feelings.

A notion of the meaning and importance of such considerations may be obtained by comparing the views taken of the French Revolution by its most distinguished contemporary and by its greatest historical critic. M. de Tocqueville and Burke had to qualities in common, which suggest a comparison between their writings, notwithstanding the many particulars which would rather invite a contrast. Each was a deep thinker, and each passed a large and most important part of his life in the management of great political affairs. Each, in a word, was both a philosopher and a statesman; and a comparison of the ways in which the French Revolution struck one of these men when he viewed it as a contemporary and by the light of antecedent experience, and the other when he viewed it as a past event and by the light of subsequent experience, may serve to illustrate the limitations under which even the most remarkable men are obliged, by the nature of things, to criticize the great events which occur before their eyes.

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France may be not unfairly described as nearly, if not quite, the most successful pamphlet ever written. It is oftener quoted than read. To most readers it is known rather by the purple patches which adorn it--the ‘I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards,’ etc., and the ‘No! we will have her’ (the Church of England) ‘exalt her mitred front in Courts and Parliaments’--than by its general purport. It is, however, by its general purport, and not by the fine passages, that its author’s power to cope with the great event that was passing before his eyes must be estimated; and it must always be remembered that Burke was the ablest and most experienced English political writer of his day, and that, in so far as he failed to appreciate the Revolution, he did so by reason of the inadequacy of political knowledge and speculation as it then stood, and not by reason of any personal defect either in industry or mental power.

The general doctrine of the Reflections is, that existing institutions ought always to be made the basics on which reform should proceed; and that, in particular, the relations between Governments and their subjects ought to be ascertained, not by reference to any list of abstract propositions called by such names as the Rights of Man, but by reference to the institutions of given times and places, subject only to the proviso that the general result produced by the whole system is advantageous.

He enters into a long and, though eloquent, somewhat boastful exposition of the way in which this principle applies to the English Constitution. He shows how, by slow degrees, one right after another was established by Parliament, always upon the ground that it formed part of the ancient franchises of England. He then turns round upon the French, and, with tremendous force of language and sarcasm, reproaches them for not having followed this good example: ‘Your Constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls, you might have built on those foundations.’

The French might have put themselves in a high position by connecting their reforms with the history of their ancestors. If this aim had been kept in view, ‘You would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage, and therefore to be pardoned for your abuse of the liberty to which you were not accustomed, and were ill fitted.’

He goes on to contrast the state of feeling and opinion in France and England respectively which led to these opposite results. In England, those natural feelings were preserved which in France had been sacrificed to pedantic speculation: ‘In England, we have not yet been completely embowelled of our natural entrails. . . . We have not been drawn and trussed in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags, and paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man [a passage, by the way, which appears to M. Michelet insane and blasphemous raving]. We preserve the whole of our feelings still native and entire unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity.’

Religion, especially religion as embodied in the Established Church, is reverenced as the foundation of civil society, and the English people think that a Church Establishment lends a sort of sacred character to the State considered as a whole. France, on the other hand, has been misled by a ‘literary cabal,’ which ‘had some years ago formed something like a regular plan for the destruction of the Christian religion.’ By their malignant arts, they got possession of the public ear, controlled public opinion, and prevailed upon the States-General, which were composed principally of country curates and village attorneys (the estimate of the States-General, though not one of the most eloquent, is one of the shrewdest parts of the work), to confiscate the property of the Church. This state of mind led the French to overlook what was really good and wholesome in the Constitution of their country. It had great abuses, but it was by no means a very bad Government.

Then follows an estimate of the condition of France, and of the different parts of its population, which is of deep interest, especially when taken in connection with the result of M. de Tocqueville’s inquiries into the same subject. Burke observes that the population of France was apparently flourishing, that there was much reason to believe that its wealth was increasing, that ‘it is but cold justice to that fallen monarchy to say that for many years it trespassed more by levity and want of judgment in several of its schemes, than from any defect in diligence or in public spirit.’

He then proceeds to describe different classes of society. He speaks very highly of the noblesse, and points out, to the great credit of his sagacity, that they had nothing to do with the local administration. He admits as one of their faults, though he does not dwell on it, that they were too exclusive, not admitting rich men to a due share of consideration. One passage on this point is remarkable. No one would think of writing it now, and it marks the width of the gulf over which we have passed: ‘To be honoured and even privileged by the laws, opinions, and inveterate usages of our country growing out of the prejudice of ages, has nothing to provoke horror and indignation in any man.’

His description of the clergy is to much the same effect. He defends their character, and vigorously and even ardently defends the utility of supporting them by endowments. The work concludes with a review of the Constitution established by the National Assembly, which is as fierce and contemptuous (and not undeservedly so) as words can make it. For our immediate purpose, the most remarkable passage in it is the following: ‘If the present project of a Republic should fail, all securities to a moderated freedom fail with it; all the indirect restraints which mitigate despotism are removed; insomuch that if Monarchy should ever again obtain an entire ascendency in France, under this or any other dynasty, it will probably be, if not voluntarily tempered at setting out by the wise and virtuous counsels of the prince, the most completely arbitrary power that has ever appeared on earth.’

Such are some of the most salient points of the view which the ablest of contemporary Englishmen took of the French Revolution. To common readers the fierce eloquence of the book will always constitute its great charm, and no doubt there is a wholesome pleasure in seeing a bully thrashed. The pedants and mere literary men who had ruled European, and especially French, opinion so noisily and so long, well deserved all that Burke said of them. ‘Hit him again--harder if you can,’ is the sentiment which rises in our mind on witnessing Burke’s awful attacks on everybody who believed in the Rights of Man.

But this is, after all, a passing pleasure, and perhaps rather a boyish one. The real merits of the book are in its quieter parts. Every page in which Burke deals with the question of the state of France, or with the tendency of the revolutionary legislation, is surprisingly shrewd, and has received ample confirmation from the subsequent minute inquiries of M. de Tocqueville.

The great defect of the book is, that it raises, but does not answer, the question, Why was there any Revolution? If things were going on reasonably well, if the country was rather prosperous than otherwise, if the noblesse and the clergy were what Burke represents them as being, how can the whole transaction be explained? It is altogether incredible that a ‘literary cabal’ should deprive a whole nation of its fundamental beliefs, and even of common sense and the very rudiments of experience, and launch it on a mad voyage of destruction and piracy. It would be too with to expect of any public man so accurate and comprehensive a knowledge of the affairs of a foreign country, as to be able to answer a question like this in an entirely satisfactory manner. To take a keen shrewd view of the true character and tendency of events of such magnitude, discussed as they were with almost furious ardour, was in itself a great achievement.

M. de Tocqueville’s work on the Ancien Régime enables us to understand how great an achievement it was--to see what truths form the necessary supplement to Burke’s shrewd observations, and to get a true notion of the present constitution of French society.

M. de Tocqueville, as well as Burke recognizes, and even sets out with recognizing, the fact that France had originally the very same institutions as England, or, at least, institutions formed on the same model. But he points out what Burke, not very unnaturally, did not see, or did not see clearly--namely, that French institutions had had their history as well as English institutions, and that the Revolution was just as much a consequence of previous French history, as the commotions which had marked the reigns of the Stuarts, and the establishment of the House of Brunswick, were consequences of the previous history of England.

It is true that in England the change had been continuous, and that the taste of the people, and a variety of collateral circumstances, had made it possible to infuse a new spirit into the old forms; whereas in France, at the moment of the Revolution, the change, which had up to that time been gradual, became abrupt, and produced a crash.

The answer, or rather the commentary, which M. de Tocqueville supplies to Burke’s sarcasms about building on the ancient foundations, and the Maroon slaves escaped from the house of bondage, is that, after all, the English and French both rebuilt their houses, and on much the same plan--with a view, that is, to the alterations required by the gradual changes of society. The difference was that the English took their time, and, he might have added, made less fuss about it.

With respect to his indignation about the Rights of Man, exactly the same remark applies. The French claimed, in an abstract pedantic way, what the English had long acted on, without setting up a set of doctrines like metaphysical ninepins, to be knocked over by rhetoric. Burke himself had a theory of his own as to the rights of men, or, as he called them, to show that he disliked the phrase--the ‘real rights of men.’ He says, ‘If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence.’ The worst that can fairly be said of the Revolution is that it put forward the very same thought in a pedantic form which was open to a thousand objections.

M. de Tocqueville says, with great truth, that the effect of the Revolution was ‘to abolish feudal institutions, in order to substitute simpler and more uniform political arrangements, based on the equality of conditions.’ It was not to produce the equality of conditions, but--that having been already produced, at least to a great extent, by other means--to make political institutions correspond with it. The object of the English Statute Book, from Magna Charta downwards, has been nearly the same.

This is the leading thought of M. de Tocqueville’s book; and it is very neatly expressed in a review which he wrote, and which Mr. John Mill translated for the Westminster Review in 1836. ‘The French Revolution has created a multitude of accessary and secondary things, but of all the things of principal importance it has only developed the germs previously existing. It has regulated, arranged, and legalized the effects of a great cause, but has not itself been that cause.’ This supplies the answer to Burke’s invective. The reason why the French could not build on their old foundations was that they did not begin their repairs in time.

It is in comparing Burke’s practical estimates of particular parts of the French body politic, with the results of M. de Tocqueville’s researches that the surprising shrewdness of the one and the value of the other are most strongly displayed. Burke insists on the general prosperity of France as proof that the Government was not utterly bad; and he argues that therefore it ought not to have been destroyed. One of M. de Tocqueville’s chapters is thus headed: ‘That the reign of Louis XVI was the most prosperous period of the ancient Monarchy, and how that prosperity itself hastened the Revolution.’

After describing the complaints of misery and decay which were common during the half-century which followed the great wars of Louis XIV, he says: ‘About thirty or forty years before the outbreak of the Revolution, the spectacle begins to change. . . . Every one is impatient--exerts himself and tries to change his condition. There is a universal effort to improve, but it is a vexed and impatient effort, which makes man curse the past, and imagine a state of things contrary to what they see before them.’

He goes on to show how this spirit affected every department of business--the executive Government, commerce, and the administration of the law. In all directions there was an increase of prosperity, and also an increased humanity in government. Burke’s shrewd passing observation as to levity and want of judgment rather than want of diligence or public spirit being the fault of the Government, is fully corroborated by M. de Tocqueville’s detailed inquiries.

After observing that, in 1740, the administrative correspondence is occupied principally with acts of authority, he says of the administration of 1780: ‘Its head is filled with a thousand schemes for increasing public riches. Roads, canals, manufactures, commerce are the chief objects of its thoughts. Agriculture, too, attracts its attention. Sully comes into fashion with administrators.’

Why upset such a tolerable system? asks Burke, who, with the sagacity of a practical statesman, saw how tolerable it was. Because, says M. de Tocqueville, with great insight into human nature, ‘experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that when it begins to reform. . . . Evils which were suffered patiently as being inevitable, appear insupportable if the notion of being rid of them is conceived.’ As the nation became rich, commercial, and enterprising, it naturally felt the old system of laws to be more oppressive than it had formerly been.

The droit d’ aubaine, for instance--the king’s right to seize the goods of a foreigner dying in France--might be tolerated when it affected no one more important than an unlucky soldier of fortune or an obscure tradesman, but it would be utterly intolerable in the present day, when there are perhaps 20,000 comfortable English people in Paris at a time. So true is it that the hope to improve one’s condition, the high spirits excited by prosperity, and the contrast between the existing state of things and the laws which shackle it, are the most powerful incentives to revolution, that, as M. de Tocqueville points out, the most prosperous parts of France were precisely those in which the Revolution was most violent. In Paris and the Ile-de-France there was little to complain of. Brittany and La Vendée were full of abuses.

A very similar observation applies to the noblesse. Burke observes, with perfect truth, that they had little power in the country and none in the towns; and he adds that the mere possession of hereditary privileges, even if the possessor clung to them with obstinacy, was not a thing to be regarded with horror and indignation.

M. de Tocqueville confirms and amplifies Burke’s observation in the fullest way. He shows, in the first place, that at the time of the Revolution serfdom was almost, if not altogether, unknown in France. It existed, if at all, only here and there, in one or two of the German provinces. Indeed, it seems probable that it died out in parts of France earlier than even in England. There had been no serfs in Normandy since the thirteenth century. Not only were most of the crying abuses of French society greatly alleviated, but the peasants had become proprietors.

M. de Tocqueville’s researches appear to prove that the state of things of which we hear so much at present is far older than the Revolution. The morcellement of the holdings, and the embarrassment of proprietors who bought their property with borrowed money, were the subject of frequent complaint long before the Revolution. What, then, was it all about? Why were the noblesse the object of such furious indignation, and ultimately of something like proscription? Burke asks the question as if it were unanswerable, and by way of reducing the Revolution to an absurdity. M. de Tocqueville answers it satisfactorily.

At the time of the Revolution the distinction between the peasant and the gentilhomme had become purely conventional: ‘In feudal times the noblesse were looked on in the light in which we look on the government--the expense which it involved was submitted to because of the security which it gave. The nobles had vexatious privileges and burdensome rights, but they kept order, administered justice, put in force the law, helped the weak, and managed public affairs. As the noblesse ceases to do all this, the weight of its privileges seems heavier, and at last its existence becomes unintelligible.’

The noblesse ought, according to the institutions of the country, to have been its masters. In fact, they were only proprietors, and all their property was thrown into the most invidious form. The peasants, who ought to have been serfs, were, on the other hand, landowners, and their property enabled them to feel all the unfairness of the privileges of the noblesse in the keenest way. Hence the noblesse found themselves in a position at once invidious, helpless, and useless.

Another instance in which M. de Tocqueville supplies the groundwork of a keen observation of Burke’s is in relation to the subject of the administration. Burke, after exposing the absurdity of the new Constitution, remarks that, if it failed, it left nothing but despotism to fall back upon. The remark is perfectly and lamentably true, but it was not altogether the fault of the National Assembly. Men cannot make bricks without straw, and M. de Tocqueville’s book shows that there was nothing vigorous left in France except the central administration.

The description of the local administration before the Revolution, and the proof that centralization in France was far older than Napoleon--that it was the work of Louis XIV, and had been brought during the eighteenth century to a state closely resembling that in which it may now be seen--is the great feature of M. de Tocqueville’s second work.

The same thing had been pointed out in a more summary manner in Sir James Stephen’s Lectures on the history of France, but the extraordinary merit of M. de Tocqueville’s book lies in the fact that it gives she result of a vast quantity of exploration at first hand, of the original documents connected with, or rather constituting, the administration of the country. The history of the growth of the authority of the Intendants, and the specific examples given of the extraordinary power which they exercised, have thrown a flood of light over the whole subject. These researches explain, as it never was explained before, the process by which the noblesse were reduced to insignificance, and by which all the barriers between the central power and the mass of the population were thrown down.

The facts which, to Burke, appeared like isolated iniquities or follies, are shown to have been only symptoms of a deep-seated and wide-spread disease, the roots of which were more than a century old.

The most remarkable single instance of this is to be found in an observation of Burke’s on a clause of the Constitution of 1790, which was repeated in later Constitutions, and is to this day the law of France, and a chain round the neck of the nation. It exempted public servants from actions for their official conduct without the leave of the Government. On this Burke remarks: ‘It is curious to observe that the administrative bodies are carefully exempted from the jurisdiction of these new tribunals. That is, those persons are exempted from the power of the laws who ought to be most entirely submitted to them.’ This was most true; but it was equally true, as M. de Tocqueville shows, that this was not an isolated piece of folly on the part of the National Assembly, but a generalization of a practice which had long been growing up. It had been usual to withdraw specifically from the cognizance of the ordinary tribunals all suits arising out of Royal edicts, or orders of the Council.

The views of Burke and those of M. de Tocqueville on the literary and religious aspect of the Revolution, complete each other in the same remarkable manner. M. de Tocqueville writes without any special reference to Burke. In their estimate of the writers who influenced France so deeply they cordially agree, though M. de Tocqueville, as usual, explains the philosophy of the phenomenon which Burke merely observed.

The Reflections are filled with bitter contempt of the pedantic system-mongers who had ‘emboweled’ the French, and stuffed them, like birds in a museum, with wretched scraps and shreds of blurred paper about the Rights of Man. M. de Tocqueville shows how it happened that the literature of that age was at once so influential, so pretentious, and so inconceivably ignorant. It was influential, because arbitrary power had turned all the French intellect into that channel. It was pretentious, because it was ignorant, and at the same time conscious of its intellectual vigour. It was ignorant, because the writers were prevented by the Government from acquiring practical experience: ‘The condition of these writers prepared men to like general and abstract theories in government, and to trust to them blindly. In the almost infinite distance at which they lived from practical life, no experience came to temper their natural ardour; nothing warned them of the obstacles which existing facts might oppose to the most desirable reforms; they had no idea of the dangers which always accompany the most necessary revolutions.’

Their animosity to Christianity was a feature which would, of course, attract the attention of every observer. M. de Tocqueville ascribes it entirely to want of political experience, and agrees with Burke in the conclusion that the least degree of practical knowledge would have prevented it.

Two passages from the Reflections and the Ancient Régime on this subject are strikingly similar. Burke, whilst insisting on the fact that experience had brought Englishmen to reverence religion as the basis of society, says that his experience has lived down scepticism: ‘Who, born within the last forty years, has read one word of Collins and Toland, and Tindan and Chubb and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves free-thinkers? Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through?’

After referring, not to this passage of Burke, but in general terms to the Deistical controversy in England, M. de Tocqueville says: ‘Why look for examples out of France? What Frenchman in the present day would think of writing such books as those of Diderot and Helvetius? Who would read them? I should almost say, who knows their titles? The incomplete experience which we have acquired in sixty years of public life has sufficed to disgust us with this dangerous literature.’

The resemblance on this point between these great men deserves notice rather than praise. The question of the truth of a religion, is at least as important as that of its utility, for truth is the highest form of utility, and grapes will grow on thorns, and figs on thistles, before all human life can be founded on a lie. It is the weak point of both Burke and M. de Tocqueville that they never seem to admit that inquiry into the origin of received truths has any value for its own sake. They undoubtedly had some. Mere political experience would not have been sufficient to parry all their attacks. The questions which they rised are still outstanding, and will some day or other imperiously require a solution. The question what is the truth, as far as we can grasp it, about God and the soul, is at least as important, as practical a question for every man as the question what is the nature of Democracy.



This parallel between Burke and M. de Tocqueville might be carried through the whole of their respective books; but the foregoing observations are enough to serve as an illustration of the way in which the keen glance of practical experience sharpened by passion is explained and confirmed by the minute inquiries and mature wisdom of political philosophy.
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* Reflections on the Revolution in France. By Edmund Burke. L’ Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Par A. de Tocqueville.





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