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Defending Tocqueville

In response to:

Revolution à la Mode from the June 3, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

I will not pass judgment on Miss Behrens’s rather aggressive discussion of Alice Gérard’s and R.R. Palmer’s books in your edition of June 3. They can defend themselves, but since Tocqueville cannot, I will do it for him….

Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime is obviously a subtle book, and the basic intellectual method of the work is point and counterpoint. For every theme there is a countertheme; and the intellectual and emotional purpose of the book is to show that French society at the end of the ancien régime stopped dead in its tracks precisely because of the contradictions that it encompassed. Hence, for example, the subjects of chapters 8 and 9 of Book Two: “How France had become a country in which men were more like each other” and “How though in many respects so similar, the French were split up more than ever before into small and isolated self-regarding groups.” These are thoughtful titles and not as Miss Behrens might assume the symbols of vulgar, even childish error.

Miss Behrens blames Tocqueville for maintaining “that the nobility was becoming more and more of a caste, while asserting at the same time that titles had never been so easy to get.” But this was in fact true. There were many new nobles, and the aristocracy was more exclusive both in theory (Boulainvilliers) and in practice (de facto exclusion of the bourgeoisie from access to top jobs). Had there been no social, economic, and cultural change which raised the condition and ambitions of non-nobles, or if the aristocracy had been more open, the ancien régime might have evolved along the lines of either the Prussian or the English model. There is no contradiction here, only perspicacity.

Miss Behrens adds that “[Tocqueville] said that the nobles had privileges but no power (which was manifestly untrue, for they held all the important posts)” but again, this is a fruitful contradiction. For one, Tocqueville did talk about the rising importance of parliaments, but leaving that aside, Tocqueville’s point was that nobles who exercise power via the bureaucracy are not the same as nobles who exercise power directly and for their own sake. The French bureaucracy did not develop as an autonomous force with an ideology of the Rechtsstaat, and under these circumstances, whether the nobles held all the important posts is irrelevant. What is important about Turgot is that he is trying to restore the power of the centralized and royal state, not that he is a baron. Political power was exerted by the crown for its own good, or its own conception of the national good. What matters in Tocqueville’s view is that the ancien régime could no longer do that in the 1780s. In view of the nature of the French bureaucracy, the social composition of the administrative corps is not essential to his argument.

Most peculiar is Miss Behrens’s feeling that Tocqueville erred in thinking that the “bourgeois, who being unprivileged presumably paid taxes, were continually getting richer and dispossessing the nobles of their wealth.” There is no need to discuss this.

However, it is indeed true that Tocqueville belabored the matter of the fiscal exemptions of the aristocracy. But there is a charitable (and sensible) explanation for this. Given the intellectual tools that he had at his disposal, Tocqueville was hard pressed to explain what appeared to him the fundamental fact about French society on the eve of the French Revolution: its social atomization. Surely, however, it is not his fault that he had not read Durkheim or Crozier. Tocqueville’s exaggeration of the divisive role of the fiscal structure is in itself proof of his genius. He would not have made this mistake if he had not been on the right track.

Patrice Higonnet

Department of History

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

C.B.A Behrens replies:

M. Higonnet accuses me on several counts of criticizing Tocqueville unjustly. Except for believing that Tocqueville was mistaken in his views (which I must confess that I personally find plausible) about the socially divisive effects of the French tax system, he defends Tocqueville against the charges of confusion and inaccuracy. He adopts the line of argument which is commonly used against anyone who challenges a sacred text, and which consists in pointing out that the critic has failed to appreciate the author’s subtleties.

I should be the last to deny that Tocqueville was a subtle and penetrating writer, or that in attempting to understand the mentality of the ancien régime he began a task in which he has had few followers and, at his best, no equal. The esteem in which he is held at the moment, however, is often not due to this fact, but to his having propounded a version of the class struggle which the upholders of the current orthodoxy find comforting. It was, nevertheless, in this part of his enterprise that his selection and interpretation of the evidence was most capricious, his terminology least precise, his facts most open to question and his argument least coherent.

I will attempt to answer M. Higonnet’s points in turn.

To start with, M. Higonnet maintains that Tocqueville, in asserting on the one hand that the nobility was becoming more and more of a caste, but on the other that titles had never been so easy to get, was not inconsistent but perspicacious. Since the term caste is commonly held to mean a group of people into which entry is possible only through birth, and since it was so understood by Tocqueville, what M. Higonnet says can only make sense if we assume first, that the French nobility in the eighteenth century was not a homogeneous body but was subdivided into different groups, and secondly, that entry into some of these groups was easy, while entry into one or more of the others was becoming increasingly difficult. The first of these assumptions is certainly true. Whatever the amount of truth in the second (and this is a complicated statistical question which has never been investigated) it was emphatically not true to the extent that Tocqueville supposed.

The legal, social, and economic position of the French nobility in the eighteenth century is a difficult and technical subject which it is impossible to discuss in detail here. I might, however, point out that where the question of caste was at issue to Tocqueville, as to many other people with similar preoccupations, one of the principal tests was marriage. May I refer M. Higonnet to pages 102 and 103 of E. Barber’s The Bourgeoisie in Eighteenth Century France. It is said here that “in Paris there were…innumerable ‘fertilizing’ marriages, with the result, as Duclos put it, that…’the nobility have now lost the right to despise the world of finance, for only few of its members do not have blood ties with the latter.’ ”

The wealthy financiers of Paris saw their children make marriages of great social brilliance, marriages which involved the greatest names of the old noblesse as well as of the robe. Here are a few striking examples: Barbier reported in 1752 that “the viscount of Rohan-Chabot has married Mlle. de Vervins, the daughter of a counselor in Parlement, who was the son of M. Bonnevie, a farmer general.” The young lady’s maternal grandfather had been a cloth merchant on the rue St. Denis. Mme. de la Rouchefoucauld, who bore another name of great distinction, was none other than the daughter of “the extremely wealthy Proudre, the tax farmer…. A Choiseul married the granddaughter of Crozat, a Molé the daughter of Bernard, and the daughter of the banker Laborde became no less than the Comtesse de Noailles. Descazeaux, an old shipowner of Saint-Malo, also did very well with a granddaughter of the Maréchal de Noailles.”

Tocqueville was unaware of this state of affairs, which he had not troubled to investigate, presumably, for the reasons he gives on page 147 of the fourth edition of L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Here he says that even in his own day, after sixty years of democracy, marriages between old and new families were avoided as far as possible. He sees this point of view as the relic of an age when, by implication, it must have been held much more strongly. Strangely, considering the family he came from, he did not realize what lessons the reactionaries had drawn from the Revolution.

Next, M. Higonnet professes to find it “most peculiar” that I should suppose “Tocqueville erred in thinking that the bourgeois, who being unprivileged presumably paid taxes, were continually getting richer and dispossessing the nobles of their wealth.” Since he does not discuss this point I am unable to see what he means. The facts are, however, that the bourgeois were far from being unprivileged, as Tocqueville, who concentrates on the nobles’ privileges, leads one to suppose. In fact, as was frequently and stridently pointed out at the time, they enjoyed greater financial privileges than the noblemen who lived from agriculture; for income from industry, commerce, and finance could not be taxed directly; and the burden of direct taxation fell almost exclusively on the land. In spite of these advantages, however, the bourgeois cannot in general be said to have been dispossessing the noble of his wealth. Many regional analyses have shown that in the localities investigated the nobles constituted the richest group—and naturally so, for they not only had access to all the best jobs (and so, in Professor Confino’s words, were able to participate “au festin permanent de l’état“), everyone with enough money bought himself a title, and noble husbands for his daughters.

Finally, M. Higonnet maintains that though the nobility held all the important posts, Tocqueville was guilty not of error but of “fruitful contradiction” when he said that they had no power. Tocqueville’s point, he says, “was that nobles who exercise power via the bureaucracy are not the same as nobles who exercise power directly for their own sake.”

I am not aware of any passage in his Ancien Régime where Tocqueville makes a point of this sort. On the contrary, it was one of his essential theses that the French nobility, unlike the nobility in England and Central Europe, was totally excluded from power. He was perfectly explicit in this matter. The officials in the administration, he says on page 116, were almost all bourgeois. On pages 71 and 72, he explains at length that even the ministers were people of mediocre or low birth. On page 175, he describes the Intendants, to whom he attributed all the reality of power, as men of common birth.

As is now generally accepted, there was no truth in any of these assertions. It remains extraordinary and mysterious how Tocqueville can have made so gross an error. One possible explanation would seem to be that he used the terms “bourgeois,” “low birth” and “common birth” in the kind of way in which they were often used before the Revolution in military and court circles. Here one customarily described the members of the Robe, who were professional pen-pushers, as bourgeois, even though their families had been noble for many generations, and even if they were one’s own relations.

Even on this assumption, however, the conundrum is not altogether solved; for Tocqueville could easily have discovered that though the ministers commonly came from the Robe they did not do so invariably, and on occasions, like Choiseul and Castries, were even dukes.

One can only conclude that accuracy, even on matters that could easily be checked, was not Tocqueville’s strong point, and that he was not even necessarily perturbed by arguments that did not hang together. All this did not prevent him from showing a remarkable insight into the nature of aristocratic and democratic societies. It might, however, reasonably deter us from according to his Ancien Régime the uncritical reverence which is usually bestowed on it.

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