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Tocqueville and the French Revolution

Tocqueville’s argument in the French Revolution

The French Revolution took place between the years 1789 and 1799. It was an era of political and social anarchy involving radical changes in the existence of France. Its main purpose was to increase the powers and the authority of the central government and not to destroy the freedom of the church or to cause lasting anarchy. Tocqueville was a French political analyzer and long-time historian who has written many books on historical and political subjects including “Democracy in America” and The Old Regime and the Revolution. In his works, Tocqueville gives his views on the French revolution and its effects on social conditions on individuals and countries in the west. He argues in the Old Regime and the French Revolution (Tocqueville, 1955) the revolution was never intended to create anarchy or cause problems to the religious groups. He continues to argue that it was not to change the tradition of the French people and what they believed in. The main success of the revolution the as he saw it was the suppression of the political organizations that were commonly referred to as the feudal that had so much influenced the European Nations for centuries. The revolution’s aim was the replacement of these traditional forms of government with new political and social systems all founded on equality (Tocqueville, 1955). Tocqueville stresses several issues to support his arguments; firstly, he argues that despite the efforts of the French of trying to change almost everything during the revolution, they somehow came back to the same old patterns that had been there before. This is due to their inability to come up with original ideas of how they wanted the political and social systems to be as they kept using the old regime as a point of reference. They particularly wanted to ban the old system of governance but ended up with the old system, just as it was, but stronger. The strength of the new state was the only thing they could use to destroy the old Regime and maintain order at the same time. Therefore, they kept most of the old system, to use it in the end as destruction to it (paradoxical). In Tocqueville’s view, this was the reason why much of the old regime remained even after an attempt to ruin it.

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Another point stressed by Tocqueville is that people are not willing to have freedom for its sake but for other reasons like; power, material interest, authority and control of resources. Therefore, freedom was turned into a form that can be said to be despotic with everybody being free to expand their riches and power but with no political freedom. His argument was that if material interests, selfish behaviors are the result of any action, people will prefer a government that assures them economic stability at the expense of political freedom.

Thirdly, Tocqueville’s argument in Democracy in America (Tocqueville, 2000) is that France was the opposite of the United States. In France, people depended on the central government to make major decisions on matters concerning economic and political subjects without doing so as a people, both before and after the revolution. In the US on the other hand, the political and economic decisions were made from the grassroots level. The people decide on their economic and political wellbeing which in France was affected by the bureaucracy.

Was the French Revolution Really Revolutionary

There is a disagreement on the views of Tocqueville about the French revolution given the factors that led to the revolution in the first place. For some reason, the revolution arose because the economic and the intellectual state of the country was not matched with the political and the social change, but not because the country was backward. In the traditional laws of the ancient regime, the French people were not able to practice politics with influence. King Louis XIV consolidated the monarchy hence destroying the basis of feudalism which was becoming persistent and burdensome on the outside. At the same time, France was being governed by privileged class of people such as the clergy and the nobility with heavy taxation of the working classes to raise funds for foreign wars and courts’ numerous expenses. In contrast, the national debt was rising at an alarming rate. Largely, the poor people made up the small landowners or lease farmers, subject to feudal taxes, forced labor, tithes and other impositions as well as to the royal agents the collecting of taxes (indirect farming). Food shortages were a result of barbaric farming methods and internal tax barriers. Therefore, there is no doubt that the revolution was a revolution for people who were seeking freedom from all these.

To add to the social and the economic difficulties that the French people were facing, the old system of government was not respected by intellectuals at that moment. The Church was for instance attacked by Voltaire; attack on tradition and advocacy for social utility were done by Encyclopedie and Diderot; the fashioning of the English constitution was done by Montesquieu; while Marquis de Condorcet preached his faith everywhere. J.J. Rousseau (2004) was the most direct in his effect on the progress of the revolution particularly through his pattern of independence. The Economic reforms advocated for were due to the refusal of the privileged groups to give up their privileges and by the failure of the king to advocate for strong measures. It is not right to say that the French Revolution was not necessarily a revolution as viewed by Tocqueville because people were really fed up with the old regime and there is no reason for them to even retain a little bit of it.

One thing that can cause a revolution or rebellion of a people is chaotic management of the finances. The French Revolution was directly due to the chaotic state the government finances were in. There were efforts by the General Director Jacques Necker to restore public confidence in the government. There was increase in the national debt due to France’s involvement in the American Revolution. The person succeeding Necker tried to fix the finances by inducing the high class and the privileged classes to help lift the burden. They did not agree to this all in the name of protecting their economic privileges (selfishness). Necker’s successor was Charles who was Calonne’s predecessor. Calonne tried to outsource money but his efforts were supported by the parliament of Paris. King Louis XVI then agreed forcefully to support the decision by parliament. Elections were called for in 1788 and the States-general met for the first time on 5th May, 1789 since 1614. Necker was then recalled and he together with the king purposed to get the consent of the assembly to have a general fiscal reform. The estates were made up of the clergy, nobility and the commons. The commons presented their problems and complaints to the king. Numerous complaints came from all the provinces and it became clear that there was a distant smell of a rebellion. Political and social reforms had to be dealt with not paying regard to the initial purpose of the meeting. Abbe Sieyes expressed the aspirations of the Bourgeoisie in form of a pamphlet that was widely distributed that said that the nation and the third state were equal and the same. There was then debate whether the different states should meet separately and vote by order or vote by head when they have met together. The deputies of the commons (the 3rd estate) rebelliously declared themselves the national assembly on June 17th the same year inviting lower members of the clergy estate and a small number of nobilities. The king then closed down their place of meeting forcing them to meet in an indoor tennis court and eventually took an oath to remain together until the drawing of a constitution. The king gave in on 27th June and legitimized the National Assembly. At about the same time, he surrounded the city with troops and was persuaded by the court together with the queen and once again dismissed Necker. Whatever Tocqueville says, these were events that slowly led to the revolution.

The revolution began in 1789 after the mobilization of the Parisians. They stormed the Bastille fortress on July 14th. The National Guard was under the command of Marquis DeLafayette who organized ii. There was the very first outbreak of violence that caused the popular classes to join the revolution. They were mobilized by such situations as lack of food and depression of the economy. August 4th, the clergy and the noble in the assembly gave up their privileges partly due to fear and also due to the need for idealism. This is a clear proof that the people got what they wanted since they revolted against the privileges of the privileged groups and they did not go back to that. Here again, I disagree with Tocqueville.

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As if that was not enough, there was abolition of the feudal structure of France in just one night. The Assembly then adopted the Declaring of Rights to Man and Citizens. If this was not a revolution there is no way the clergy and the noble as well as the king could have given in to the demands of the citizens. There were even rumors of the counterrevolutionary pamphlets that had been circulated and on October 5th 1789, the Parisian rebels demonstrated against the rising food prices, marching to Versailles bringing to the crown “The baker and his wife” (Bell, 1955) back to the palace in Paris. The Assembly also went to Paris for the process of drafting the constitution. The constitution was completed in 1791creating a limit to the monarchy with a uniform legislature elected by voters holding the required qualifications. The worst results were the antireligious measures taken by the Assembly. They made sure that the lands that belonged to the church now became national land, they suppressed religious orders and required the clergy to pledge their allegiance to the Civil Constitution being controlled by the state. However, a small majority (45%) of the clergy ended up taking the oath: trouble rose, especially in the western part of the State; and the king was provoked to action after being forced to assent to the oath. This is a clear indication that the French people were rebelling against the religious orders. The changing of the religious orders and the requirement of the clergy to serve under the constitution is an indication that the revolution fought against the church, contrary to what Tocqueville thought. However, it is possible that they were not against the religious practices; they only wanted it to happen under the law. The main thing that triggered the revolutionists to want change even in the church was because of the clergy’s refusal to give up their privileges earlier; they could no longer be trusted. The action the king took involved the fleeing of his princes and he joined them later as he sought foreign support to regain his kingdom. The escape he attempted on June 20-21, 1791 was stopped at Varennes, when both the king and the queen were brought back to Paris in shame. The king had to accept the constitution. This led to the meeting of the Legislative Assembly on 1st October the same year and at the same time people joined various political parties like Jacobins and Feuillants. This was a clear proof that the old regime was being rejected as people sought democracy and a state where they were able to choose their own leaders. I can call this a revolution because there was a complete change of constitution and total alteration of the government systems (Bell, 1955). The people wanted equality, freedom and fraternity.

The revolution was now turning into hatred in the foreign countries. The courts of Europe were asked to intervene but the royalists preferred war as a way to reinstate the old regime but the republications wanted this option so as to spread the revolution to other countries. This saw the suspension of King Louis XVI with the calling of elections by the revolutionists. Royalist sympathizers were arrested in massive numbers and more than 2000 of the killed in prisons. This is always what happens in many revolutionary wars as the people looking for change always want to do away with the people supporting the old regime. The old regime was not preferred and that’s why there was urgent need for change.

The French Revolution had several effects that qualify it to be called a revolution. There was total change in land ownership as the bourgeois and the land-owning people became more powerful and dominant in power. There was the death of feudalism; a social order and contractual relationship that was advocated for by Napoleon. The revolution led to the unity of France and improved its power as a state. The revolution also destroyed the traditional structure of Europe, rapidly strengthened the idea of nationalism and introduced a period of modern warfare in totality (Bell, 1955).

Although Tocqueville views the French Revolution, (The Reign of Terror) as a way to strengthen the central authority, the Revolution entirely played a role in establishment of structures leading to democracy such as elections, constitutions and a government where everybody is represented. While Tocqueville interprets the French Revolution in a different manner, many historians agree that it had amazing effects on the emergence of the modern world; and that is what makes a revolution.


  1. Tocqueville, A. D. (1955). The Old Regime and the French Revolution. New York: Anchor Books
  2. Tocqueville, (2000). Democracy in America (Translated by George Lawrence, J. P. Mayer, ed.),New York: Perennial Classics.
  3. Rousseau, J.J. (2004). The Confessions, Translated to English by Project Gutenberg, EBook #3913
  4. Bell, D. (1955). The First Total War. Anchor, ISBN-10: 0385092601,Pp 300

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