Like Ham and Eggs: Anarchy, Tyranny, and the Fourth of July

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).

13 thoughts on “Like Ham and Eggs: Anarchy, Tyranny, and the Fourth of July

  1. I think it was Burke who referred to THE Revolution IN France, rather than to the French Revolution. The Revolution is the same everywhere and every time. It always consists in the same combination of resentment, narcissism, and nihilism. The endless mass of twenty-somethings constantly taking “selfies” with their cell phones are as much part of the Revolution as the Antifa incendiaries and the grotesque men who masquerade as women.

    • Most counter-revolutionary writers saw the Revolution as an international conspiracy that was more successful in France than elsewhere. Most also saw it as essentially metaphysical and only accidentally political. Most agreed with what you have often said here at the Orthosphere: the Revolution was essentially armed gnosticism.

    • Here is what Tocqueville had to say about the international character of the Revolution, which divided nations and crossed national boundaries.

      “All mere civil and political revolutions have had some country for their birthplace, and have remained circumscribed within its limits. The French Revolution, however, had no territorial boundary—far from it; one of its effects has been to efface as it were all ancient frontiers from the map of Europe. It united or divided mankind in spite of laws, traditions, characters, and languages, turning fellow-countrymen into enemies, and foreigners into brothers; or rather it formed an intellectual country common to men of every nation, but independent of all separate nationalities.”

  2. Acton has a very interesting comment on this.

    “The Roman republic laboured to crush the subjugated nations into a homogeneous and obedient mass; but the increase which the proconsular authority obtained in the process subverted the republican government, and the reaction of the provinces against Rome assisted in establishing the empire. The Cæsarean system gave an unprecedented freedom to the dependencies, and raised them to a civil equality which put an end to the dominion of race over race and of class over class. The monarchy was hailed as a refuge from the pride and cupidity of the Roman people; and the love of equality, the hatred of nobility, and the tolerance of despotism implanted by Rome became, at least in Gaul, the chief feature of the national character.”

    He also observes that “The hatred of royalty was less than the hatred of aristocracy; privileges were more detested than tyranny; and the king perished because of the origin of his authority rather than because of its abuse. Monarchy unconnected with aristocracy became popular in France, even when most uncontrolled; whilst the attempt to reconstitute the throne, and to limit and fence it with its peers, broke down, because the old Teutonic elements on which it relied – hereditary nobility, primogeniture, and privilege — were no longer tolerated. The substance of the ideas of 1789 is not the limitation of the sovereign power, but the abrogation of intermediate powers.”

    • That is an interesting parallel. It seems that slaves prefer that all be slaves rather than that some be free.

  3. I agree that the liberal revolution has been disastrous to liberty. However, that revolution took place long before the American War for Independence.

    I would argue that the American Revolution was no such thing. Liberalism has taken hold in the rest of the English-speaking world as thoroughly as in the US, which is a clue that the American “Revolution” was not what caused the rise of liberalism in the US. The real revolution occurred in 1688 (the so-called “Glorious” Revolution), which mortally wounded the old order. The old order (a balance between monarchy, aristocracy, and commons) was already substantively dead by 1776 (although the outward forms remained, just as the Roman Empire retained the formal institutions of the Republic while emptying those forms of their substance). The American War for Independence was not a revolution; it was merely a change from one liberal regime (one which regarded the Americans alternately as British subjects or as foreigners depending on what suited Parliament’s interests) to a different liberal regime.

    As the colonists (e.g. the Fairfax County Resolves of July 18, 1774) and some members of Parliament (e.g. Edmund Burke) argued, the colonists had traditionally been governed by their own legislatures, subject to the authority of the crown as represented by the royal governors. The colonists argued that Parliament had no authority in the colonies, because the colonial legislatures were the colonists’ parliaments. Burke argued that Parliament did, in principle, have authority over the colonies, but that, since the traditional arrangement was that it did not exercise that authority, Parliament should not exercise that authority except in emergency situations where the fate of the British Empire was at stake. In either scenario, Parliament was violating the traditional order of things, and King George III had functionally abdicated his authority where the colonies were concerned, abandoning them to foreign rule (i.e. that of Parliament). Thus, by 1776, allegiance to the old order was no longer possible, because it no longer existed.

    • Thanks for this interesting elucidation. I didn’t mean to suggest that liberalism originated in the American Revolution, only to underline its revolutionary character from a reactionary perspective. American radicals have tended to emphasize this revolutionary character while deploring its failure to go much farther than it did. American conservatives have tended to represent the War for Independence as a conservative reaction to the overweening arrogations of imperial Britain. My sense is that the war was revolutionary, but the revolutionary fire burned slowly in America because it had no metropolitan mob. Revolution requires a rabble and the American rabble has historically been small and widely scattered. The revolutionary fire burned slowly, but burn it did, leading to the libertinage and leviathan state of today.

  4. “[T]he the love of equality, the hatred of nobility, and the tolerance of despotism” naturally go together; the fear being that, if the central power is weak, the secondary powers will run riot and oppress.

    Belloc shared Acton’s opinion: “The scorn which was in those days universally felt for that pride which associates itself with things not inherent to a man (notably and most absurdly with capricious differences of wealth) never ran higher; and the passionate sense of justice which springs from this profound and fundamental social dogma of equality, as it moved France during the Revolution to frenzy, so also moved it to creation.

    Those who ask how iit was that a group of men sustaining all the weight of civil conflict within and of universal war without, yet made time enough in twenty years to frame the codes which govern modern Europe, to lay down the foundations of universal education, of a strictly impersonal scheme of administration, and even in detail to remodel the material face of society—in a word, to make modern Europe—must be content for their reply to learn that the Republican Energy had for its flame and excitant this vision: a sense almost physical of the equality of man.”

    • It is a strange faith to trust that the central power will not “run riot and oppress.” It seems to me obvious that freedom for the little man comes when multiple powers are opposed to one another. Belloc is of course right about the great, or should I say terrible, energy that was unleashed by the revolutionary ideals, but France passed from this into an equally great (terrible) ennui.


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