Below is a pair of letters between Tocqueville and a political opponent, Victor Prosper Considerant, a utopian Socialist in the tradition of Charles Fourier.
Tocqueville was briefly Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Second French Republic under President Louis Napoleon, during which time these pre-Marxist Socialists, incensed by a military expedition in Italy authorized in secret (before Tocqueville joined the Ministry), attempted an insurrection.
Talk about tumultuous times. Tocqueville, a moderate prepared to serve under constitutional monarchy or republic, had already been elected to the French Assembly after the Orleans monarchy had been overthrown in 1848. This infant Republic had been menaced immediately by proletarian agitation that promised (and on a small-scale delivered) radical social upheaval. The assault on the institution of property united most of France against the Parisian workers, and the latter were defeated. But Socialism was just beginning its rise. As a movement to inspire men, its future was bright in a rapidly industrializing world.
A year later, now in the Cabinet as Foreign Minister, Tocqueville was faced with a new threat of political violence directed toward half-baked utopian schemes. His position was discomfited by folly of the Government he had only just signed on to, which had blundered into the Rome expedition under the pressure of domestic turmoil.
In his Recollections he writes that “It would be difficult to imagine a more critical moment in which to assume the direction of affairs. The Constituent Assembly, before ending its turbulent existence, had passed a resolution, on the 7th of June 1849, prohibiting the Government from attacking Rome. The first thing I learnt on entering the Cabinet was that the order to attack Rome had been sent to the army three days before. This flagrant disobedience of the injunctions of a sovereign Assembly, this war undertaken against a people in revolution, because of its revolution, and in defiance of the terms of the Constitution which commanded us to respect all foreign nationalities, made inevitable and brought nearer the conflict which we dreaded.”
To sit in a representative assembly, as a Cabinet minister in a Republic on the verge of flying to pieces, must have been an extraordinary experience. “The members arrived from every side, attracted less by the messages despatched to them, which most of them had not even received, than by the rumours prevalent in the town. The sitting was opened at two o'clock. The benches of the majority were well filled, but the top of the Mountain [the radicals] was deserted. The gloomy silence which reigned in this part of the House was more alarming than the shouts which came from that quarter as a rule. It was a proof that discussion had ceased, and that the civil war was about to commence.”
Presently the Assembly declared Paris in a state of siege. Martial law governed until the insurrection was put down. In these and subsequent events, Karl Marx would perceive great portents of the future; and pondering these he would coin one of his most famous sentences — the one about farce reprising tragedy in the course of historical events.
It was a formidable time to draw breath under heaven. Europe was in a state of peculiar flux. These were the formative years of revolutionary politics. The ancien regime was no more, but fallen kings and princes stood all about the peripheries of republican power, ready when the opportunity presented itself to take up the instruments of new modern totalizing nation-state. There would never again be mediaeval monarchs ruling by divine right; but there would be autocrats in abundance, ruling by right of lex talionis. Louis Napoleon would soon stage a coup and make himself emperor. Industry and political agitation were making new classes — the working classes at once debased and enthralled by the material benefits of industrial capitalism — first self-aware and then organized. Tocqueville would live to see only the earliest presages of these movements, which in time would shake the earth and form a considerable part of the story of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The letters below offer a very small but intriguing window into this remarkable age. We see the remnants of aristocratic duty, in the social bonds maintained between these men even through bitter political acrimony. We see the shocking rancor of the political quarrels: veiled threats even in personal correspondence, ready reference to political violence: all somewhat softened by a beguiling tradition of rhetoric. We see, in a word, one world dying and another being born.
My Dear Tocqueville,
(Here followed a request for a service which he asked me to do for him, and then he went on):
Rely upon me at all times for any personal service. You are good for two or three months perhaps, and the pure Whites [monarchists] who will follow you are good for six months at the longest. You will both of you, it is true, have well deserved what is infallibly bound to happen to you a little sooner or a little later. But let us talk no more politics and respect the very legal, very loyal, and very Odilon Barrotesque [Barrot was a monarchist tool of Louis Napoleon] state of siege."
My Dear Considerant,
I have done what you ask. I do not wish to take advantage of so small a service, but I am very pleased to ascertain, by the way, that those odious oppressors of liberty, the Ministers, inspire their adversaries with so much confidence that the latter, after outlawing them, do not hesitate to apply to them to obtain what is just. This proves that there is some good left in us, whatever may be said of us. Are you quite sure that if the position had been inverted, I should have been able to act in the same way, I will not say towards yourself, but towards such and such of your political friends whom I might mention? I think the contrary, and I solemnly declare to you that if ever they become the masters, I shall consider myself quite satisfied if they only leave my head upon my shoulders, and ready to declare that their virtue has surpassed my greatest expectations.