Review: Tocqueville's The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution
Installment in an Ongoing Book Review Series
Tocqueville: The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, translated and edited by Jon Elster and Arthur Goldhammer, is among the most clear and cogent analyses of the French Revolution in existence. The theme that runs throughout Tocqueville’s book is his thesis that much of what had been attributed to the Revolution in his time were actually factors that preceded and informed the events which brought down the Ancien Regime. He soon asserts in the beginning of Book I that he was convinced that “unbeknownst to themselves, they had taken from the Ancien Regime most of the feelings, habits, and ideas that guided the Revolution which destroyed it, and that, without intending to, they had built the new society out of the debris of the old” (38). Ultimately, late in the book, Tocqueville contends that reforms brought during the reigns of the last three monarchs prior to the Revolution hastened the Revolution itself.
Tocqueville maintains that the goal of the scholarship is to explain why the Revolution was particular to France, why it emerged fully formed, and how the monarchy fell so suddenly. He does much more than this, however. His discussion of the world of France over the preceding century certainly provides context, but his analysis also provides for an underscoring of his thesis that the events of the monarchies before the Revolution were instrumental not merely for their failings but for their attempts at reform.
A comparative history of sorts is employed. Offering such an analysis, Tocqueville observes, was “necessary to lay the groundwork for understanding what follows, for I venture to say that he who has seen no other country and who studies only France will never understand the French Revolution” (62). Most of his comparative history is done by juxtaposing France in stark contrast with the events and political evolution of England in the seventeenth century. He notes that England, by the eighteenth century, had all but destroyed its caste system. He similarly observes an interesting correlation between the evolution of the term gentleman in England and the rise of democracy. He concludes this point by observing that gentilhomme in France remained “narrowly circumscribed by its original meaning” (118).
Once he arrives at the year 1789, Tocqueville has established internal divisions in France that had been growing for decades. For example, he asserts that by 1789, it had never been so easy to acquire a title of nobility, and yet the gap between bourgeois and noble had never been so vast. Similarly, the chasm between bourgeois and noble was similar to the gap between bourgeois and peasant. Further divisions could be found in the growing irreligion of the era. He observes also that as writers grew to have more influence, they were nonetheless political thinkers with no actual experience of conducting politics. This is a crucial point. Tocqueville argues that if the Estates General had been in operation during the earlier years and decades that preceded the Revolution, then “these philosophers would have possessed a certain familiarity with government, and this would have alerted them to the dangers of pure theory” (166).
At one moment in the work, when Tocqueville returns to tracing antecedents to the Revolution during the Old Regime in earlier decades, he offers an almost Hegelian perspective when he observes that the “spirit that moved through the great body of the nation was a new spirit, and it resurrected the body only briefly before dissolving it” (189). It appears that what he is discussing is something akin to the public will or Rousseau’s Social Contract, but there are also similarities to Hegel’s spirit in the text.
Financial matters, of course, loom large in stoking the Revolution. It is noted that France was $600 million in debt to its creditors by the mid-1780s. This fact operated, somewhat incongruently it seems, with evidence that France was producing more wealth than ever before. The progress being made in industry and commerce, however, could not stem the ramifications of a culture of debt. Indeed, Tocqueville observes that those who are generally most inclined to champion the status quo—at least, during times when the stability of the economy can be relied upon—including merchants and bankers, were among the most vocal advocates for reform. Not dissimilar from some economists in the United States today, the threat of an ever-growing national debt by those inclined to pay attention to such matters—their worries generally fall on deaf ears.
One of the most powerful assertions made by Tocqueville in this work concerns his discussion of the suspension of the parlements (courts) by Louis XV in the 1770s. He argues that this act brought a loss of faith in essentially all of France’s institutions. It appears, just as happened with laws that were revoked and reinstated and guilds which were disbanded and (partially) re-established, the people felt increasingly to be on the losing end of arbitrary rule. This arbitrary rule was nothing new, of course, but as Tocqueville contends, political reforms and modernization of industry revealed what might be possible. The people, believing it possible for the future to be better than the past, were suddenly far more sensitive to arbitrary acts of power than they had been previously. As Tocqueville notes, when the people “witnessed the downfall and disappearance of the parlement, which was nearly as old as the monarchy itself and previously thought unshakeable, they vaguely understood that a time of violence and hazard was approaching, one of those times in which everything becomes possible, when few things are so old as to be respectable or so new that they cannot be tried” (203).
This review has merely skimmed the surface of the insights Tocqueville brought to an understanding of the French Revolution. His approach was to compare France to its neighbors, particularly England, study the growing internal divisions over the preceding century (divisions between nobility, bourgeoisie, peasantry, clergy, parlements, the king, and the king’s ministers), and recognize how philosophers created the language for revolution, with some co-opting the language for financial and/or political benefit, and others implementing revolution to change their most immediate circumstances. It is to no small degree incredible that a work from the mid-nineteenth century could illuminate and elucidate the French Revolution better than other, much more recent, works.