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Politics & Views


The Coup d'Etat of 1851

Tocqueville in prison

Scene at the city hall of the 10th <i>arrondissement</i>, December 2, 1851

Scene at the city hall of the 10th arrondissement, December 2, 1851, Ch. Lahure © AD Alpes de Haute-Provence

When the soldiers, led by two police commissioners, returned to the city hall of the 10th arrondissement, they had been given orders to disperse the deputies and completely dissolve this core of resistance. However, in the face of the assembly's firm resolve not to leave the premises, and their solidarity even when threatened with imprisonment, the soldiers resolved to arrest every one of the people's representatives present, and transport all of them across the city to holding cells in the Quai d'Orsay barracks. According to Tocqueville, the sight of these deputies "dragged à pied through the mud of Paris like a band of criminals" among them "men famous for both their talents and their virtues - former ministers and ambassadors, generals, admirals, great orators, great writers" moved the crowd that accompanied the cortege to cry out "Vive l'Assemblée Nationale!". It is a fact that any resistance offered by the people of Paris to the coup d'état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was violently suppressed.

« All that remained was to drag off to prison those honorable men guilty only of the crime of defending the laws of their country. »
(Letter to Mrs. Grote, December 8, 1851)

As for the deputies, 218 spent their first night of imprisonment in the barracks at the Quai d'Orsay, "without a fire and barely anything to eat, stretched out on wooden planks". Victor Hugo, who was not among them, described in his pamphlet The Story of a Crime how "Monsieur de Tocqueville, ill, threw his cloak on the tiled floor and slept in the arch of a window. He lay stretched out there for several hours." He was ill, there is no doubt, but he was even more worried for his wife, who was ill herself, and was at home without news of him. He managed, during the night of December 2, to get a scrawled note to her, reassuring her and asking for "some food and a coat". The next day, he was part of a contingent of fifty deputies who were transferred to Vincennes in prison vehicles. It was there, on the night of December 3, that he found out that Frédéric Chassériau, the brother of the artist Théodore ChassériauThéodore Chassériau
(1819 - 1856)

Great painter of French Romanticism. He was the heir of both Ingres, with whom he studied while still young, and Delacroix. Closely associated with Alexis de Tocqueville, of whom he painted a celebrated portrait, he enjoyed a brief but intense career.
, had convinced the prefect of police to free him before the other deputies. Without hesitation, Tocqueville refused this favor, and explained in a second note to his wife that it "would lose him the esteem of his colleagues" and that "an individual favor that looked like a pardon would not suit [him]." He was finally freed, along with nearly all of his partners in misfortune, on the morning of December 4. His freedom gave him the desire to reveal to all the truth behind the coup d'état, which he violently condemned, and he took an unwavering stand as an adversary of the new regime.

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Political Figures

The representatives being led to the Quai d'Orsay barracks, December 2, 1851

The representatives being led to the Quai d'Orsay barracks, December 2, 1851, Ch. Lahure
© AD Alpes de Haute-Provence

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Notes sent by Tocqueville to his wife from his prison cell

Notes sent by Tocqueville to his wife from his prison cell © AD Manche / Poirier

Note ordering the release of Tocqueville, dated December 3, 1851

Note ordering the release of Tocqueville, dated December 3, 1851
© AD Manche / Poirier

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