Alexis de Toqueville was only forty-eight when he wrote this dolorous line to his friend, the Comtesse de Circourt. This was in the fall of 1853, after the great historian had retired from Paris to the village of St. Cyr, on the banks of the Loire, seeking “a long period of perfect stillness to succeed the anxious and sometimes painful years that I have given to politics.” Tocqueville was also beginning to work on his last book, The Old Regime and the Revolution, which he would publish three years later to explain his disgust with the modern age.
“You must have experienced in your travels, Madame, a peculiar sensation on arriving in the morning in a foreign town, where all is new and strange to you—people, language, and customs. You are in a crowd and yet you are more overpowered by the sense of solitude than if you were in the middle of a forest. This is what often happens to me in the midst of my countrymen and contemporaries . . . . I have preserved many strong feelings which they have lost; I still love passionately the things to which they have become indifferent; and I have an antipathy which grows stronger and stronger for the things which seem to please them more and more.”*
Tocqueville felt estranged from his countrymen because they had become anarchic and tyrannical at the same time. The Revolution had destroyed the social and moral order of the Old Regime, and thereby produced a social and moral anarchy that most Frenchmen mistook for liberty; but it had at the same time established a political leviathan that governed those libertine Frenchmen absolutely. This was because the Revolution destroyed all of the secondary powers that had formerly tempered the primary power of the State; and by destroying those secondary powers, it had immeasurably engrossed the primary power of the State.
On this anniversary celebration of the American Revolution, Americans who share Tocqueville’s sense of alienation from their countrymen may find a measure of melancholy understanding in these profound lines from his Old Regime and the Revolution, where he tells us that social and moral anarchy go with political tyranny just as ham goes with eggs.
“As the object of the French Revolution was not only to change an ancient form of government, but also to abolish an ancient state of society, it had to attack at once every established authority, to destroy every recognized influence, to efface all traditions, to create new manners and customs, and, as it were, to purge the human mind of all the ideas upon which respect and obedience had hitherto been based. Thence arose its singularly anarchical character.”**
Much the same could be said for the American Revolution, which did not end with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but has rather continued on a course of “singularly anarchical character” to this day. And here, as in France, the superficial liberation from all secondary powers has entailed an absolute domination by the primary power of the state.
“But, clear away the ruins, and you behold an immense central power, which has attracted and absorbed into unity all the fractions of authority and influence which had formerly been dispersed among a host of secondary powers, orders, classes, professions, families and individuals, and which were disseminated throughout the whole fabric of society. The world has not seen such a power since the fall of the Roman empire. This power was created by the Revolution, or rather it arose spontaneously out of the ruins which the Revolution left. The governments which it founded are more perishable, it is true, but a hundred times more powerful than any of those which it overthrew.”**
Happy Independence Day!
*Gustave de Beaumont (ed.), Memoirs, Letters and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, two vols. (1862).
**) These are from Henry Reeve’s translation, which was published as On the State of Society in France before the Revolution of 1789; and On the Causes Which Led to that Event (1856).