Page images

the frank vindication of past events, and an open expression, otherwise denied to them, of present opinions. Such a facility of communication is no doubt peculiar to a nation which loves, and knows how, to talk, and Mr. Senior might wait long before an English minister, even in obscurity or disgrace, would thus reveal himself to his best-trusted companion; but the documents themselves are none the less valuable, and when varied, as are the conversations before us, with much wisdom and pleasantry on social and historical topics, they afford an illustration of character hardly equalled in importance by the most familiar correspondence. The translation itself, at once faithful and free, is the last act of a long friendship, and betokens a true womanly insight into the spirit of the writer, which no mere scholarship could supply, but which this book especially demands, for it is the story not of a Life, but of a Mind.

There is, indeed, an entire disproportion between the circumstances of this existence and the void occasioned by its loss. Of gentle but not illustrious birth, of independent but moderate means, a traveller in countries already well known, the author of one completed work and one other commenced, an interesting but not effective speaker during some years of indefinite parliamentary opposition to a Government which he generally approved, and a minister for some months of a Republic that he neither assisted nor desired to establish, M. de Tocqueville passes away in the meridian of life, and the event is regarded not only as a national disaster, but as a calamity to the dearest interests of mankind. His name is held up to reverence and his character to admiration, not only by the friends whom his personal fascination and delightful qualities had won and retained, or by the small band of comrades who had shared his doctrines and his fortunes, but by statesmen, whose principles he had condemned, by philosophers, whose authority he had disputed, and by priests, in whose religion he but coldly acquiesced.

We believe the main cause of this result is to be found in the singular unity of purpose which pervaded his whole moral and intellectual being. If a clear and lofty theory of life, to which a man can adapt his duties and his actions, is a comfort and a strength to any one in his march through the world, it is no less desirable for a thinker to possess an object of mental contemplation, around which new experiences and fresh inferences can continually cluster, which will grow with his knowledge and expand with his observation, and which, without disturbing his judgment, may fill him with .the powers of a prophet and the ardour of an apostle. Such was to M. de Tocqueville the consciousness of the facts and influences of Democracy in the present and

and future generations of civilised Man, and the effect of this permanent study, discreetly used and sanely regulated, stood out in strange contrast to the diffuse fancies and distracted notions of the political sciolists of our age. France had abounded in men who had been mastered by ideas, but the spectacle was new of a mind replete with a great thought yet entirely free from any concomitant delusion, at once passionately absorbed and absolutely judicial,—without prejudice either on one side from partiality or on another from fear of its imputation,-labouring for the strictest evidence of truths instinctively apprehended, and seeking for every corroboration of certainties already known.

The phenomenon was all the more surprising, because there was nothing in the early life and associations of De Tocqueville by which this strong impression could naturally have been induced. Although his youth had not, like that of M. Guizot, been impressed with the terrors of flight in the light of burning châteaux, still it was passed amidst the near remembrances of the atrocities and passions of the Revolution. He well knew how, six months after the union of his own house with that of the Lamoignons, his parents had been cast into the Conciergerie, and had only escaped death by the fall of Robespierre. His childhood had listened to the anecdotes of his grandsire, M. de Malesherbes, the veteran of liberty, who died in defence of the sovereign who had banished him from his presence, and whose scaffold, including three generations of victims, touched the hardened conscience of a sanguinary mob, so that no more executions could be ventured upon in that place. Such reflections were assuredly not favourable to an appreciation of freedom or to the perception of political truth; but even these tragic phantoms were less hostile to the development of liberal ideas than the condition into which good society in France had fallen after the violent tension and anxiety of recent years. Hopeless of escape from evil government, men only tried to put it out of sight as much as possible, and pleasure, so long foregone, became the sole occupation of existence. Seria ludo was the motto of the wisest and the best: among the most refined of the upper classes the art of conversation was the main criterion of superiority; and the highest faculties found their exercise in private theatricals, family mystifications, and every kind of elaborate amusement. Then the tact and beauty of Madame Récamier sufficed to rule over Parisian life; then no one asked for poetry deeper than Delille's, or for piety more earnest than that of Chateaubriand. In this atmosphere, and with no graver education, grew up young Clérel de Tocqueville. He was free from care as to his future destination, for his father had purchased him a Magistracy,



according to the customs of the profession, in which his natural acuteness, and still more his judicial turn of mind, would in the ordinary course of events elevate him to the highest dignities of the bench, with no exclusive sacrifice of his tastes or time. he desired to attain greater wealth or higher social position, few alliances would be inaccessible to a descendant of M. de Malesherbes, endowed with rare natural graces and the most amiable temper. His days might glide by in the domestic enjoyments that so well suited his affectionate and unselfish disposition, and in the performance of interesting duties which he would discharge with ease and satisfaction under a form of procedure where much more depends upon the good sense and equitable disposition of the judge than on technical knowledge or the formalities of law.

But this was not to be: while yet a boy he said to M. de Beaumont, his friend through life, and now his biographer, 'Il n'y a à dire c'est l'homme politique qu'il faut faire en nous,' and what he meant by this is exhibited by his whole existence. By the dissolution of the Empire, other politics than administration or intrigue had become possible in France; and the experience of some years of profound peace had shown that constitutional institutions were capable of generating the practice and habits of liberty among a people who had lost even the desire to possess it. The organisation which had brought order out of the social chaos of the Consulate, and which Napoleon had so long and so successfully adopted to raise himself and level all about him, had produced a nation incapable of acting or thinking, or even wishing for themselves; and yet, by the time when Tocqueville rose to manhood, France was fully engaged in the problem of free government, earnestly interested in the play of the new machine,—duly suspicious of monarchical or of democratic encroachment, conscious that on the issue of this experiment depended the question whether the future of the French people was to be a secure and wholesome progress to the highest civilization or a series of incoherent efforts and reactions, of panics and submissions, of extravagant hopes and ignoble despairs. If these days had not all the exciting ideals and enchanting delusions of those of 1789, of which M. de Talleyrand used to speak as the only ones he had ever known worth living, at any rate they afforded ample materials for the observation of a young and fervid mind. In De Tocqueville the fabric rose with the incidents of every hour, with the last speech, the new book, the newspaper article, the libel, the prosecution, the verdict, the changes of ministers, the menaces of angry authority, and the counter-threats of popular resistance. Besides these a certain


instinct directed his reflective powers to the old enemy, and in one sense the conqueror, of his country, with feelings of more interest than perhaps he liked to own. If the government of France was to rest on representative principles, where could she look for example, for warning, for contrast, for comparison, for illustration, but to England? Thus the very first letter in this correspondence, written at nineteen, contains a project for an adventure to spend 'incognito' two days in London, to see those rascally English, who, we are told, are so strong and flourishing; just as, eighteen years afterwards, he tells the same friend that he finds an attraction even in the history of Smollett, 'the poorest writer the world has produced,' and derives a certain satisfaction from the reflection 'how many great deeds were compatible with so much individual meanness and so much public vice.' And thus too, on to the latest work and to the last moments of his life, there ever seemed to stand before his imagination two great moral figures sufficient to occupy his entire being, ever correlative, continually intermingled: the one, France, her revolution and its consequences; the other, England, her constitutional liberty and its gigantic democratic development in the United States of America.

The worth of this direction given to his early mind can hardly be overrated. That with his ardour for the happiness of humanity, and his devotion to social problems, he should have abstained from all that range of speculation which has been the sole sustenance of German thought in its long political famine, and with which French idealists in all critical times have filled themselves to bursting, is certainly remarkable.

But there was an ethical basis which underlay the whole of his political system, and which, as an expositor of past and present history, he constantly asserted, and in his own practice of statesmanship, with one exception, unswervingly maintained. This principle may be defined as the application, in its fullest sense, of the doctrine of Free Will to the communities of mankind. Liberty, with its duties and responsibilities, seemed to him the necessity of all civil society worth the name, apart from and above all consequences, right or wrong, good or evil. A man or a nation may indeed live without freedom, the slave may be happier than the citizen, and the patriarchal rule more beneficent than the capricious democracy; but such he did not conceive to be the normal condition of the creatures whom God has placed on the earth, endowed with conscience and with reason. Laws, as the expression of that conscience, and Order, as the result of that reason, must be the highest objects of human study and mortal attainment; but, if either the one or the other depend solely on


external authority, they can hardly occupy the attention or claim the interest of a true politician. Just as the value of education consists in the thing learnt, in the powers developed, in the knowledge assimilated, in the man made, so he considered the art of government to consist in enabling society to understand itself, to submit to its own obligations, to regulate its own affairs, and to work out its own destiny. Only on these conditions did De Tocqueville accept either political science or political action. Of the sentiment of freedom he would attempt no analysis to those who had it not; in his own proud words, 'It enters into the large hearts God has prepared to receive it; it fills them, it enraptures them; but to the meaner minds, which have never felt it, it is past finding out.' Thus it would have been distasteful to him to exercise power for its own sake, and little satisfaction to play the part of Providence even to the advantage of his fellow-men; but he was ambitious to assist, eager to cooperate, and ready at any personal sacrifice to encourage others to produce the greatest possible good for themselves. Thus, while it was his work and delight to trace the wondrous scheme by which the free agency of man was made the instrument of his elevation, he would no more have thought of cramping the moral or physical phenomena that rose before his observation within his own theory, or of submitting them to his own notions, than he would have subjected the popular will to the schemes and machinations of a despot.

Each History assumed for him the character of a Biography, and his interest in it was exactly proportioned to the amount of individuality and the variety of faculty it displayed. The mere adventures of a nation, however exciting or surprising, were to him but as the reading of a child, compared with the absorbing study of the exhibition of passions and of the operations of intellect. He had an indulgence, almost a respect, for passions which he himself never felt; loving, as he said, 'those that are good, and not quite sure that he hated the bad,' for they showed a strength which irresistibly attracted him amid the doubt and languor of modern times. He was ready to recognise the importance of intellectual processes, for which he himself had no inclination. Voltaire, he remarks, might call metaphysics the romance of the mind; but he felt that they penetrated, by means of religious doctrine and moral speculation, into the national character, and both originated and decided many of the most serious movements in the progress of the world. It was the same with the classical writers, in which his education had been imperfect, but in whose records of ancient civilization he took as much interest as if he had been a critical scholar. So too with the character


« PreviousContinue »