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The Old Regime and the Revolution

Birth of the work
« Without you and your archives, I would never have been able to write the book that I am now publishing. Everything that my subsequent research has taught me is connected to you and them. By your side, I found the sequence of ideas that I had been seeking [...]. It is precisely in our conversations that I anchored in my mind the ideas that have since become the source of all the rest. »
(Letter to Charles de Grandmaison, August 9, 1856)

In the period between 1852 and 1856, the time when Tocqueville was engaged in writing his book about the Revolution, the year 1853 marked a turning point. Health problems had forced him to take a rest in Touraine, and it was during this time that he was able to make significant progress with his project. This was thanks to the archives in Tours and the richness of their holdings in materials relating to the Ancien Régime, as well as the help afforded him by the archivist, Grandmaison, who had just finished ordering the archives of his predecessor when Tocqueville came to visit him for the first time, needed only a few discussions with the great academician to understand the nature of his project, to judiciously orient his research towards the Ancien Régime, and to provide him with documents that would allow him not only to study the rules governing the administration of the Ancien Régime, but also to understand the practices and customs that, in addition to the official texts, were in force at the time. After having made daily visits to this brilliant archivist during the entire summer of 1853, and taken hundreds of pages of notes from the material that Grandmaison had supplied, Tocqueville was finally ready, in the fall of that same year, to begin writing his book, in particular the two introductory chapters that were originally meant to be the only ones to discuss the Ancien Régime. It is striking to consider that the object of these two chapters, as described by Tocqueville in a letter to his friend Jean-Jacques Ampère on January 1, 1854, correspond exactly to that of the two major parts that would soon constitute the entire work: he foresaw that he would successively deal with "the real goal of the Revolution" and the "particular traits that characterized this Revolution as one of the great upheavals of man" and then with "what caused this general revolution to begin in France rather than elsewhere", and "what it gave us in terms of particular traits that distinguish it from all the other revolutions that sprang from it". Although the writing of the book was far from complete when Tocqueville left Touraine, the entire project, including both the subject of study and the plan to follow in order to deal with it, had definitively been chosen.
Nearly three years of writing and rewriting, trial and error, and corrections would be needed for Tocqueville to extract, from the mass of examples that he had analyzed, the rigorous and clear formulation of his thought that slowly emerged during the work's creation. During this period, he also felt the need to travel to Germany, with the intention of finding "a living Ancien Régime", in order to refine the comparison that he wanted to make between the situation of France and that of Germany. Despite the relative failure of this trip from an intellectual point of view, a trace of it remains in The Old Regime and the Revolution, if only because Germany is used as a useful counterpoint for the analysis of the situation in France.
The book was finally finished early in the moth of June 1856, and since its publication was delayed for a week by the death of Hervé de Tocqueville, it was published on June 16, 1856 by
Michel LévyMichel Lévy (1821-1875)
A bookseller turned publisher, Michel Lévy published nearly every important author of the second half of the 19th century, including Dumas, Balzac, Hugo, Sand, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Stendhal, etc
. It was an immediate success, and remained so until Tocqueville's death, since in 1858 the work had already been reprinted four times in a total of nine thousand copies. Although the author had several misgivings at the idea of reappearing before the public, they were quickly banished by the glowing reception that the book was given, and which has not changed in subsequent generations.

The Prefecture of Indre-et-Loire that houses the Archives

The Prefecture of Indre-et-Loire that houses the Archives
© AD de Indre-et-Loire


Manuscript pages from 'The Old Regime and the Revolution'

Manuscript pages from The Old Regime and the Revolution; private collection
© AD Manche/A. Poirier

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