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Politics & Views


The Coup d'Etat of 1851

The Republic in danger
« Nevertheless, I strongly wish to maintain the Republic, because no other government has a majority in this country, and, furthermore, I see nothing I like that can easily be put in its place. In addition, I am one of those people who support the laws of their country and not one of those who overturn them. »
(Letter to Armand Dufaure,
October 4, 1851)

The fall of Barrot's second ministry, who was sharply removed from his functions on October 31, 1849, served to show that Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was not going to let himself be manipulated or to sacrifice any part of his dreams of Empire, whose shadows constantly flitted over the future of the Republic. Even after he left the ministry, Tocqueville, although he was profoundly irritated at the speed with which he was sent down, continued to believe in the longevity of this regime, which in 1851 found itself at an impasse. The electoral calendar called for a round of elections for a new Legislative Assembly and a new President of the Republic starting in May of 1852. Indeed, according to the Constitution of 1848 (and following the proposal put forward by Gustave de Beaumont and supported by Tocqueville), the president of the Second Republic could only be elected for a single term. But Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, legitimized by his great popularity, openly refused to quit the presidency. The threat of a coup d'état, which became more and more real, forced Tocqueville to take the initiative to save the representative institutions and to try and keep France from experiencing another violent change of government.

« But the glaring truth, confirmed by actions, is that the majority of that Assembly did not conspire against Louis Napoleon and sought nothing so much as to avoid a quarrel with him. »
(Letter to Mrs. Grote, December 8, 1851)

He was extremely aware of Louis Napoleon's inclinations, having personally visited with him when he was minister, and regarded the president with a very critical eye. Tocqueville saw in him a man that was often much more clever than his opponents gave him credit for, but criticized him severely for his taste for plots and secretiveness, his tremendous pride, and his disdain for freedom and representative assemblies. Tocqueville also found it difficult to put up with the mediocrity of the "flunkeys" in Louis Napoleon's entourage. But he resolved to put the influence and esteem that he had earned during his time as minister to good use, and attempted, starting on May 15, 1851, to convince the president to envision a legitimate reelection by means of an amendment to the 1848 Constitution. Tocqueville even managed to get himself appointed to the Committee charged with examining the possibility of amending the constitutional text, and defended before the Assembly an amendment that would make it possible to re-elect the president. Unable to obtain a majority of votes in the Assembly in July 1851, his efforts were in vain. Nevertheless, right to the end Tocqueville tried to save the Republic. It had not always met with his approval, but it had the great merit, to his way of thinking, of guaranteeing individual freedom and representative assemblies.

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