A shrewd, on-the-ground account of how political change is made—and unmade—by the author of Democracy in America.
Never published in de Tocqueville’s lifetime (1805-1859), his reflections on the collapse of Louis-Philippe’s constitutional monarchy and its aftermath are notable for brutally frank portraits of allies and enemies alike in the struggle to define the Second Republic. The author was staunchly opposed to the socialists who strove to push the new republic to the left, but he was well aware of the weaknesses of those who shared his moderate views. His chronicle of the constitutional commission’s meetings acidly depicts his fellow members as schemers, ideologues, and self-serving bureaucrats incapable of fashioning a workable government. Nonetheless, he discounted the threat of further unrest. “When people claim that nothing is safe from revolution,” he writes, “I say they are wrong: centralization is safe. In France…the one institution we cannot destroy is centralization.” The book is chock-full of such astute observations, which make it valuable reading for any serious student of government. (It is, however, appropriately published by a university press, since anyone unfamiliar with the details of 19th-century French history will be flipping frequently to the Chronology at the front and the Biographical Dictionary at the back.) Adding to its value, the author is seemingly incapable of writing a dull sentence, and he is a master of the cool put-down. Of his pious, family-centered sister-in-law, he writes, “one could not hope to meet a more decent woman or a worse citizen.” Running into two politicians who had contributed to Louis-Philippe’s downfall but were alarmed by the violent demonstrations that accompanied it, he sneers, “never have victors looked more like men about to be hanged.” Although colored by the desire to justify his stint as foreign minister in 1849, his text remains perceptive as it leads up to the coup that launched the Second Empire and ended his political career.
In many ways as relevant as the day it was written and great fun to read.