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The Old Regime and the Revolution

The project's beginnings
« As you know, for a long time I have been preoccupied with the idea of starting a new book. »
(Letter to Gustave de Beaumont,
December 26, 1851)

The advent of the Second Empire and the end of his political career had obliged Tocqueville to resume his work as a historian. Recent events had again brought Tocqueville face to face with questions that had dogged him for some time: how to explain the revolutionary form that France's democratic transition had taken? How can freedom be guaranteed in a society founded on the equality of conditions? Personally, he had little interest in the study of history as such, and thought of it much more, in a therapeutic way, as a source that was necessary for understanding the present. What he wanted to elucidate was why the Revolution was still going on nearly sixty years later - 1848 followed on from 1830, 1851 was the response to 1848, and so on - without ever achieving its goal, i.e. without resulting in a stable regime that guaranteed public and private freedoms based on equality of conditions. It was thus to uncover the roots of this French problem that he began in 1850 to map out the project for a great work devoted to the study of the French Revolution. It would not recount historical events but would attempt to understand, through a philosophical analysis of history, the origin of France's taste for despotism. In any case, these were the major themes of his project when he first mentioned it in his correspondence, written while he was spending the winter of 1850-51 at Sorrento for health reasons, and where he continued writing his Souvenirs.

« This book is decidedly not a history of the Revolution. It is a study of that Revolution. »
(The Old Regime and the Revolution)

Nevertheless, if the sketch of the future work was, as of this date, clearly mapped out in Tocqueville's mind, he still needed to find the precise subject and method that would allow him to accomplish the task. This would be much longer and more complicated than he himself had thought, in the sense that the research into the history of the causes of the impasse in which France found itself led him, as it against his will, to go further and further back in time than he had originally planned. Indeed, the starting point of his book should have been the "ten years of Empire". To Tocqueville's way of thinking, this period had the advantage of being "not simply great, but singular, even unique", and of shedding "a bright light on both the preceding epoch and the one that followed". He slowly gave up this idea without having found the right subject that would convincingly replace it. Two years later, in 1852, Tocqueville was still hesitating with respect to the direction that his research should take, which alternated between the period of the Ancien Régime, that of the Revolution, and that of the Directorate. The project seems not to have gotten off to a good start, as he himself admitted to his friend Beaumont in a letter dated July 1, 1852: "in fact, I still do not know if I have a subject. But I am looking for it with desperate energy." This tenacity, combined with the winds of chance, would soon give the future work a more precise shape.

Buste of Tocqueville

Buste of Tocqueville
© AD Manche

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