Tara Lee, a former BA history student at Leeds, writes:

1848 marked a wave of revolutions around the world, a tipping point of social consciousness and changing regimes. For France, this was one of many revolutions in its history as it struggled to change from aristocracy to democracy. Historians have since debated the significance of February 1848 and its causes. In Leeds University’s Special Collections is one of the most profound eyewitness accounts of the revolution: ‘Recollections‘ by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville was an influential 19th century political thinker and a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1848. Two years later, Tocqueville wrote ‘Recollections’ as a reflective account of the role of his friends, foes and himself in the revolution. After examining the first chapter, I was fascinated by Tocqueville’s keen perception of the causes of 1848.

What did the first chapter reveal?

Tocqueville painted a picture of political passions of the time… or lack of.

Tocqueville used colourful language to portray a society where the middle class was the ‘sole ruler but also its financier’ and where the government’s ‘political passions suddenly cooled.’(1) This emphasis is interesting as many historians reference the politically charged banquets which called for reform. (2) Yet Tocqueville revealed an important contrast: outside of government, political passions were brewing however inside, the lack of diverse classes holding office meant the government agreed but was out of touch with the population. That was the real danger.

But that’s not all. Tocqueville attributed the corruption of the middle classes to the personality of the monarch, King Louis-Philippe. Launching into a four page character assassination, he pronounced the King as ‘the accident that made the disease fatal.’ (3)

He wasn’t the only one to think so. Accompanying a later edition of ‘Recollections’ was a sketch done by Charles Philipon, a French caricaturist, of King Louis-Philippe morphing into a pear…(4)

black and white pen and ink drawing of King Louis-Philippe I
Charles Philipon, ‘The Metamorphosis of King Louis-Philippe into a Pear‘, 1831, pen and ink drawing.

The effect of the King’s incompetence was to exclude the ‘old aristocracy’ from politics and create deep class divides. (5)

The rest of the chapter includes something even more profound.

In January 1848, Tocqueville gave a speech to the Chamber of Deputies predicting the upcoming violence, which was circulated by the ‘Le Moniteur’ newspaper. I was initially curious as to why Tocqueville decided to include this speech; historians know that he didn’t consider himself a great orator. (6) I discovered that Tocqueville intended to include parts of the speech, but did not decide what to add, this was determined by his nephew in 1893. (7) Interestingly, this signals an editorial process and provokes questions as to the validity of the work as a memoir – more on this later!

However the pieces of the speech were selected, Tocqueville knew they would give the reader a real sense of the social climate. He broke away from his contemporaries to declare:

‘I am told that […] there is no revolution at hand. Gentlemen, permit me to say that I believe you are mistaken.’ (8)

He continued:

‘Look at what is happening among the working classes […] do you not see that their passions, once political, have become social? Do you not see that opinions and ideas are slowly spreading among them that will someday overturn not only laws, ministries and governments but society itself?’ (9)

He was met by the laughter of his peers, but Tocqueville’s reflection is insightful. He perceived the shift in the social climate which the rest of government ignored. The working classes no longer accepted the inevitability of their lot.

Tocqueville’s Intention

‘Recollections’ is undeniably thought provoking but why Tocqueville wrote it is puzzling. Tocqueville began, ‘these recollections will be a form of intellectual relaxation and not a work of literature. I write them for myself alone. This text will be a mirror […].’ (10) But the careful consideration of the speech mentioned earlier and his wife advising him on the structure, points to a level of care unusual for a private memoir. (11)

So why was it written? What perspective does it show? And how trustworthy is it as a historical source?

Tocqueville’s intention exposes consequences in memoir writing: it is a ‘mirror’ of what one saw, remembers and then wishes to write. Perhaps Tocqueville’s goal wasn’t to capture a balanced view of the events leading to the revolution.

At the end of chapter one he wrote, ‘I did, I believe, perceive more clearly than others the general causes which were making for the event; but I did not observe the accidents which were to precipitate it.’ (12)

Tocqueville’s memoir was an intellectual exercise, a mirror for him to ‘make the self-visible to itself’ and truthfully examine, as much as he could, the virtues and vices of what had occurred. (13) Tocqueville wrote his verdict on history using the memoir genre.

This intent is further proven when reading ‘Recollections’ with his other works. Dedicating his life to understanding how to prevent the vices of democracy from destroying liberty, Tocqueville had previously travelled in America to produce ‘Democracy in America‘. The text was filled with lessons on how to preserve liberty in democratic states.

The events of 1848 left Tocqueville feeling hopeless as France endured another revolution resulting in despotism. Writing ‘Recollections’ led Tocqueville to focus on understanding why France, unlike America, was so inclined to revolution and less to peaceful democracy. He spent years looking back at the Old Regime to understand the long-term causes of 1848. ‘Ancien Regime and the Revolution‘ was his last contribution to the field of political theory. Understanding ‘Recollections’ as part of Tocqueville’s scholarly process exposes why he wrote it: to make sense of France’s political state.

How valid is ‘Recollections’?

The academic purpose of ‘Recollections’ along with the nature of memoir writing inevitably casts some doubts on the perspective Tocqueville portrayed. Analysing his work alongside speeches and sketches in newspapers does corroborate some of his opinions and the part he played in 1848.

However, Tocqueville’s aristocratic viewpoint must be remembered. He pointed to the working class as the force behind the revolution. In order to fully understand the revolution, ‘Recollections’ must be compared with sources detailing the views and actions of both the working and middle classes. ‘Recollections’ is a timeless source of witty analysis, and many scholars interrogate Tocqueville’s intent in their historical studies.

Endnotes

[1] SC, BC READ C3956, Tocqueville, ‘Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville’, 1948, p. 4.

[2] Peter Jones, The 1848 Revolutions (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 55.

[3] SC, BC READ C3956, Tocqueville, ‘Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville’, 1948, p. 5.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016).

[5] SC, BC READ C3956, Tocqueville, ‘Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville’, 1948, p. 8.

[6] Zunz, Olivier, ‘Introduction’, in Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath, ed. by Olivier Zunz (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), pp. xiii-xxix (p. xiii).

[7] Larry Shriner, ‘Writing political carnival in Tocqueville’s Recollections’, History and Theory, 25.1 (1985), 17-32 (p. 22).

[8] SC, BC READ C3956, Tocqueville, ‘Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville’, 1948, p. 12.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, p. 3.

[11] Larry Shriner, ‘Genre’, in The Secret Mirror: Literary Form and History in Tocqueville’s ‘Recollections’ (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2019), pp. 13-39 (p. 19).

[12] SC, BC READ C3956, Tocqueville, ‘Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville’, 1948, p. 16.

[13] Shriner, ‘Genre’, p. 18.