Tocqueville & L’Ancien régime et la revolution from Theimaginativeconservative “Why America Is in Decline,”(December 15th, 2019)

So much of what Tocqueville writes in L’Ancien régime et la revolution seems familiar to contemporary American readers that we are compelled, if we love America as much as Tocqueville loved France, to study carefully what, in hindsight, Tocqueville believed was responsible for the destruction of the ancient order of society and politics of the great French nation.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s study of democracy in America in 1831 was followed by his analysis of the revolution that beset the ancien Régime of monarchical France. That analysis, published in 1856, is the best regime analysis since Aristotle organized the study of regimes into Constitutions. Every American concerned about great questions of political order today must study Tocqueville’s little book. For, in that book, may be discovered everything we need to know about how political community weakens and falls into decay as the powers of the State are centralized.

Tocqueville refers to key aspects of the history of France that led ineluctably to a centralized monarchy and violent reaction resulting in revolution as frustrations with an oppressive monarchy developed. Appreciation of what transpired in France is much like what Francis Graham Wilson described in his study of Spain. How can two monarchical regimes—of France and Spain—have any relevance for understanding democracy in America?

The first modern revolution was experienced in France was shaped, not by foreign invaders, but by the actions of French monarchs—from the reign of Charles VII (1403-1461) to Louis XVI (1754-1793)—contributed to the growth of a centralized State. Here are their sins as recollected by Tocqueville:

  • Charles VII assumed the power to impose taxes without the consent of those who were taxed.
  • Louis XI (1423-1483) distributed titles of nobility in order to reduce the power of the nobility and withdrew the rights of municipalities.
  • Henry IV (1553-1610) lamented that nobles were leaving their lands thus leaving unattended their obligations to the peasants who remained. But, later in 17th century, it became common practice to lure the nobles to the Court.[14] French kings divided men “so as to better rule them.”[15]
  • Louis XIV (1638-1715) granted and then reclaimed municipal rights of self-government in order to raise revenue. He engaged in the persecution of Huguenots at the same time that the language of “natural rights” of the philosophes became common. Louis XVI foolishly considered the aristocracy a threat, not the urban masses congregated in the city of Paris.

Tocqueville cited key historical dates and events that, in retrospect, pointed to the outpouring of destructive violence that occurred in 1789. Beginning in 1356, attitudes began to change sharply with the chaos caused by the captivity of King John at the battle of Poitiers. The insurrection of peasants in 1358 prefigured the periodic violence that erupted in France’s history. That insurrection was called the “Jacquerie” because the nobility commonly referred to any peasant as Jacques, or Jacques Bonhomme.

Another insurrection occurred in 1382 in response to the imposition of taxes was called Mailotins because of iron mallots that the mob confiscated and used to attack business owners, government officials and money lenders.

The year 1388 was marked by the madness of Charles VI (1368-1422) and the disorders of his rule that ensued. His reign was followed by the reign of King Charles VII who was permitted to impose a tax without the people’s consent. Tocqueville writes: “On that fateful day… the seeds were sown of almost all the vices and abuses which led to the violent downfall of the old régime.”[16]

In 1591 a public uprising in Paris against the temporizing policies of Henry III is called the Council of the Sixteens. The head of the Catholic League led representatives of the sixteen quartiers of Paris who arrested and executed three magistrates of the Parlement of Paris.

In 1648 the French nobility engaged in a last attempt in a series of wars, called the Fronde, to recover privileges usurped by French monarchs. Yet again, in 1685, Louis XIV disturbed civic order by arbitrarily placing dragoons in Protestant households as part of his persecution of the Huguenots.

In 1701, the “War of Spanish Succession”(1701-1714, following the death of Charles II of Spain, threatened the balance of power in Europe and led to war between the French and an alliance of  England, the Dutch Republic and Austria. Though the power of Louis XIV was challenged, the King secured the borders of France and continued his policy of centralization of state power.

In 1777, Maupeou, Chancellor of France, carrying out Louis XVI’s reforms abolished the system of Parlements, or regional courts. Though the French had felt oppressed by the Parlements, with their abolition, Tocqueville writes, “had fallen the last barrier still capable of holding in check the monarch’s absolute power.”[17]

If there is one thing we learn from this historical narrative, it is that centralization of the power of the State endangers ordered liberty.

Quite early in France, the powers and responsibilities of local governments had been broken down and made way for a central administration staffed by a bureaucracy. Royal power was centralized in the conseil du roi or Royal Council.[18] Except for taxes negotiated directly by the Royal Council, “all other imposts such as the taille, which had in the past been entrusted to local officials capitation tax, and the vingtièmes, were assessed and levied directly by agents of the central government.”[19]

A Controller General, had the whip hand,[20] and the Intendants—usually “a young man of humble extraction”—administered all local powers. That included conscription for military service, forced labor to repair roads and military barracks, the management of brigades of mounted police to enforce decisions of the Intendants, and selection of candidates for local office who were preferred by Intendants. The assemblies in the parishes became an “empty show of freedom” with no power to put deliberations into effect.[21]

“It would have been impossible to find,” Tocqueville wrote, “in most parts of France, even ten men used to acting in concert and defending their interests without appealing to the central power for aid.”[22]

France’s men of letters exacerbated the desire to replace an odious system with something better. Their vision of a “perfect State… estranged the imagination of the masses from the here-and-now.”[23] Voltaire, for example, envied the English for their freedom, but was indifferent to their political freedom: “He quite failed to realize that the former could not have survived for long without the latter.”[24]

The French revolution, which Tocqueville described as “a grim, terrific force of nature, a newfangled monster, red of tooth and claw” was inevitably violent.[25] A nation so unused to acting for itself was bound to begin by wholesale destruction when it launched into a program of wholesale reform.[26] At the end, even the character of the French had been altered. Social habits, created by despotic government, included love of gain, fondness for business careers, a desire to get rich at all cost, a craving for material comfort. Easy living became “ruling passions.”[27]

The parallel between centralization of power in France and the United States is ominous and we would not be citizens of a democracy, if we didn’t ask “What next?” That question reveals some difficult problems. The ranks of Congressional leaders are composed of the lackluster, the cunning, the zealots, and utopian idealists. None gives confidence that after the next election we’ll find anything better.

If this trajectory of decline can be reversed, we must change the culture. How can we do that?

First, in the short term, institute tough libel and slander laws, publicly rebuke journalists who define themselves as “citizens of the world” and impose the ideology of “Globalism” on a public unaware of the ideological bias of news reporting.

Second, over the long term, remove Progressive domination in American higher education by starting dozens of new colleges, universities and boutique graduate schools.

Third, begin to examine how to recover a commitment to civic education that prior to World War II was taught at every level of public education. That instruction in “Americanism” may not be a good fit for education in the United States today, but surely we should make American history, economics, and government, and the history of Western civilization central components of education in our high schools and colleges.

Do that, and Jesse Watters’ “World” will feature interviews with sensible, knowledgeable citizens not unlike those who fought a war to establish the independence of the American colonies. If we fail, we will lose our country.

[1] Tim Alberta, American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump (New York: HarperCollins, 2019)

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Doubleday, 1983), p. 151.

[3] Ibid., 152.

[4] Ibid., 163.

[5] Ibid., 115.

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7]University of Missouri fires professor Melissa Click.”

[8]Missouri professor Melissa Click fired for calling for ‘muscle’ to remove reporter hired at Gonzaga.”

[9] Bob Woodward, “How to Approach In-Depth Reporting.

[10] We trace use of the concept “New Class” and its relevance for How We Got Here to two sources: Irving Kristol’s 1975 essay in the  Fall 1978  issue of The Public Interest titled “On Corporate Capitalism in America,” and Dr. Angelo Codevilla’s Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It. New York: Beaufort Books, First edition (2010)

[11] The Public Interest, Fall 1978, p. 134.

[12] Richard Bishirjian, “Allan Bloom’s Six Ways that Universities Corrupt the Youth,” The Imaginative Conservative, November 1, 2018.

[13] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 30.

[14] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Doubleday, 1983), p. 122.

[15] Ibid., 136.

[16] Ibid., p. 99.

[17] Ibid., p. 166.

[18] Ibid., p. 33.

[19] Ibid., p. 37.

[20] Ibid. p. 35.

[21] Ibid., p. 50.

[22] Ibid., p. 206.

[23] Ibid., p. 146.

[24] Ibid., p. 158.

[25] Ibid., p. 3.

[26] Ibid., p. 167.

[27] Ibid., p. xiii.