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The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856)

by Alexis de Tocqueville

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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The most important contribution to our understanding of the French Revolution was written almost one hundred years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville.

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  luvucenanzo06 | Mar 1, 2024 |
In The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, Tocqueville investigates the conditions within the political system of the ancien régime that led to the Revolution. He has done an impressive amount of research for the book, not only by reading the pertinent eighteenth century literature, but also by trawling through public documents of every kind, looking into the reports of the Estates and the provincial assemblies, as well as the registers of grievances (cahiers) of the different electoral districts. One of Tocqueville’s main points is (in his own words) "That the Centralization of the Administration Belongs to the Ancien Régime and is not the Work of the Revolution or of the Empire as is Maintained" – this is actually a direct quote of the heading of Chapter 2, Part 2. This centralization was one of the underpinnings of the absolute monarchy; more precisely it facilitated the collection of taxes and direct governmental control of all the provinces, not the least through the administrative offices of the Intendants (one in every province) and their sub-delegates, who all reported to the Controller-General (head of finances). At the same time, the Physiocrats were in full swing; these économistes who with their grand schemes of agricultural reform gave the government reason to sometimes even dictate which types of crops that should be grown in specific areas. As Tocqueville points out: "all those institutions which could pass as the Revolution’s own achievement had been heralded by them in advance and preached with enthusiasm." .... "we can already recognize in their books that revolutionary and democratic outlook which we know so well. Not only did they loathe certain privileges, diversity itself was odious. They worshipped equality even if it meant servitude. Whatever impeded them in implementing their plans was fit only for abolition. Contracts carried little respect; they had no regard for private rights, or rather there were for them no private rights strictly speaking but only public utility." (p. 159)
"According to the Economists, the state had not only to command the nation, but to shape it in a certain way. It was up to the state to fashion citizen’s minds according to a certain model they had predetermined; its duty was to fill their minds with certain ideas and their hearts with certain feeling considered necessary. In real terms, no boundaries were set to the state’s rights nor to what it could enact; not merely did it reform men, it totally changed them. It would perhaps be up to the state alone to make different people out of them! ‘The state makes men into whatever it wishes them to be,’ said [abbé] Bodeau. That saying sums up all the Economists' theories." .... "This unbounded power (...) was impersonal; no longer called the king, but the state... The rights of each citizen had to yield to the will of all." (p. 162)

Tocqueville presents a picture of a society where little is left untouched by the desire for reform - and sometimes the enacted reforms were given up only a few years later, adding to the confusion. The Estates had become isolated from each other, very much in spite of the official rhetoric of the time. The nobility had lost more and more of both their political and local influence, leaving them only with pointless privileges. The clergy on the other hand was more involved in local affairs, but they also (like the nobles) enjoyed tax exemption, while the peasants were left with the increasingly crushing burden of tax as well as the corvée (forced labour) – and (further aggravating this burden) with remnants of feudal order that had survived locally in large parts of the country. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, could manage to evade paying tax by securing (or, indeed: buying) positions within local government. "Not only did the provinces increasingly resemble each other but, in every one of them, men of different social class, at least those of higher status than the common people, became ever more alike despite the individual differences in rank." (p. 86) Along with the nobility and gentry that still had sufficient means, many among the more prosperous peasants left the countryside and flocked to the small towns, the number of which were increasing in France more than in any other country in Europe. "Should a farmer work hard and finally succeed in acquiring a small property, he immediately persuaded his son to drop the plough, sent him to the town and bought him a public position." (p. 127) - And it would be conceivable that his son in turn would decide to buy the grandson a noble title, which the crown also sold to help fill its coffers..
The loss of political influence among the aristocracy meant the loss of the entire political class, and Tocqueville writes rather scathingly about the eighteenth century philosophes in France who, while they had lost all connection with and thereby also insight into practical politics, indulged in abstract theories kindled by "a desire to rebuild the society of their time following an entirely new plan which each of them traced by the light of his reason alone." (p. 142) .... "We had preserved .... one freedom from the ruins of all the others; we were able to philosophize almost without restriction.... All those men chafing from the daily practice of legislation soon fell in love with this literary form of politics. The taste for it affected even those whose nature and social position naturally kept them as far away as possible from abstract speculations. Not a single taxpayer bruised by the uneven distribution of the taille was not warmed by the idea that all men should be equal; any small landowner stripped bare by an aristocratic neighbour's rabbits was pleased to hear that every kind of privilege without exception was condemned by reason. Each public enthusiasm was thus cloaked in philosophy; public life was forced back into literature. Writers took hold of public opinion and found themselves for a time occupying the position which party leaders usually occupied in free countries.” (p. 143-44)

It is a pity that Tocqueville never got to write his planned book on the actual Revolution. His unique voice provides an invaluable contribution to the understanding of the time leading up to it, why it happened and also why it failed. And while some of his theories may have been made obsolete by historians of later times, that is of lesser importance - because it doesn't in any way diminish his analysis regarded as a whole. Also, his personal style makes it both a fascinating and engaging read. In the Introduction, Hugh Brogan writes of Tocqueville: "As he said himself, he belonged to no coterie, no party; as a writer and thinker he was something of a solitary, though his views were not always as unusual as he supposed. At any rate, he was not a socialist, a republican, or even a professor. Nevertheless, he was by background very much a man of his time." – Which is just another reason for reading him. His immediacy of style is another. I suppose that is one aspect of this book that adds to its' value as a classic – I actually found it hard to put down at times. This penetrating, in-depth analysis is still very much both relevant and thought-provoking, as well as immensely satisfying reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. ( )
  saltr | Feb 15, 2023 |
  laplantelibrary | Jan 28, 2023 |
I read this excellent first volume of de Tocqueville's planned history of the French Revolution (he didn't live to complete it, alas) in my senior year in college, in a senior seminar on the Russian Revolution. A thorough exegesis of why the French ancien regime was ripe for downfall in 1789. ( )
  SusannainSC | Mar 31, 2013 |
Toqueville's study of how the development of institutions under the Ancien Régime laid the ground for the Revolution.
  Fledgist | Sep 30, 2006 |
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» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alexis de Tocquevilleprimary authorall editionscalculated
Arbós, XavierEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baskin, LeonardCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brogan, HughIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Casas, JoanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ferrater Mora, JosepForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Furet, FrançoisEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gilbert, StuartTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goldhammer, ArthurTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kahan, Alan S.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kahan, Alan S.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lukacs, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mélonio, FrançoiseEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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No great historical event is better calculated than the French Revolution to teach political writers and statesmen to be cautious in their speculations; for never was any such event, stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable yet so completely unforseen.
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The most important contribution to our understanding of the French Revolution was written almost one hundred years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville.

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Ce livre n'est point une histoire de la Révolution. C'est une étude sur cette Révolution. Les Français ont fait en 1789 le plus grand effort auquel se soit jamais livré aucun peuple, afin de couper pour ainsi dire en deux leur destinée (...). J'avais toujours pensé qu'ils avaient beaucoup moins réussi dans cette singulière entreprise qu'on ne l'avait cru au dehors et qu'ils ne l'avaient cru d'abord eux-mêmes. (...) De telle sorte que, pour bien comprendre et la Révolution et son oeuvre, il fallait oublier un moment la France que nous voyons, et aller interroger dans son tombeau la France qui n'est plus. C'est ce que j'ai cherché à faire ici.
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