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Politics & Views

His convictions

Pauperism and Industrial Revolution

The unhappy family

The unhappy family, Octave Tassaert
© RMN / René Gabriel Ojéda

When Tocqueville discovered the apocalyptic spectacle of the working-class neighborhoods of Manchester on a visit to England, he was immediately struck by the paradox with which he was abruptly confronted. Although the Industrial Revolution had increased the ways in which money could be made and distributed around the world, it did so through a veritable exploitation of the poorest classes, who found themselves in ever-deepening poverty. France was not spared this movement that emptied the countryside of workers, who preferred instead to swell the ranks of the working populations of the major cities. "The progress of modern society is more of less rapidly increasing the number of those who are forced to live on charity": this was the initial picture painted by Tocqueville in his Mémoire sur le paupérisme [Report on Poverty] that he wrote for the La Manche Departmental Council. In it, he sought to precisely determine the solutions that should be applied to "ills of this nature". He first discussed the recourse to "private charity" which he himself practiced with respect to the poorest inhabitants of the village of Tocqueville. This method had the major advantage of forging solidarity between the more comfortable classes and society's weakest levels, without offering the latter the excessive comfort of systematic assistance.

« I am deeply convinced that any regular, permanent, administrative system whose purpose is to provide for the needs of the poor will give rise to far more misery than it can cure and will deprave the population that it seeks to aid and console. »
(Memoir on Pauperism)

He also thought that "an association of charitable people, by stabilizing the level of support, could make individual charitable efforts more active and more powerful", and indicated that he was in favor of creating such charitable organizations at the community level "in order to eliminate vagrancy and begging". Such organizations would be run on a volunteer basis. This last point would, according to Tocqueville, keep society from the risk of guaranteed support for the poorest citizens. He considered that what must be avoided at all costs was the "creation of an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrious working class". It was for this reason that he rejected the concept of a "legal charity", guaranteed by the State itself, which seemed to him to be a "beautiful and attractive theory". Its effects would certainly, as could be seen in England, be harmful both to the poorest citizens and to society as a whole. He did however admit an exception to this rule, and recommended recourse to "public charity" when it came to treating the "inevitable ills", of "the weakness of childhood, the precariousness of old age, disease, and madness" or to open "schools for the children of the poor" that would provide "free of charge the means to bodily well-being through labor".

Political Figures

A Paris scene, 1833

A Paris scene, 1833, Philippe-Auguste Jeanron
© RMN / P. Bernard

A beggar

A beggar, Hugues Merle
© RMN / Hervé Lewandovski


Resolution of the Chamber of Députies concerning the child labor law

Resolution of the Chamber of Députies concerning the child labor law © CHAN

List of poor families aided by Tocqueville

List of poor families aided by Tocqueville in 1856
© AD Manche / A. Poirier

File of working notes by Tocqueville concerning foundlings

File of working notes by Tocqueville concerning foundlings © AD Manche
/ A. Poirier Poirier

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