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Souvenirs

Second and third parts

When he was in Sorrento between November 1850 and March 1851, Tocqueville wrote the second part of Souvenirs "at breakneck speed". The book opens with a long reflective section on the causes of the events of February 1848. and Tocqueville also takes advantage of the break in the narrative to give the reader his own view of history, according to which one must not remove "individuals from the history of the human race", and ends with the conclusion that the Revolution of February 1848 was born of "general causes nourished by . accidents" (a conclusion that he would use again to write The Old Regime and the Revolution, the idea for which was conceived at this time). Although, according to Tocqueville, Louis-Philippe's political bumbling was responsible for the "accidents", the general causes had their source in the "democratic malaise" of the working class brought about by the Industrial Revolution, in the contempt of the ruling class, as well as in the mobility of a society undermined by seven successive revolutions, which should be thought of as copies of the original revolutionary earthquake that had been shaking France since 1789.

« Straight away, I considered the June battle as a sort of necessary crisis, but afterwards the nation's character was somewhat altered. The love of independence gave way to a fear and perhaps even a distaste for free institutions; after such an abuse of liberty, such an about-face was inevitable. »
(Souvenirs)

After putting the February 1848 Revolution into perspective as just another bout of the chronic disease that was ravaging the country, Tocqueville resumes his narrative in the second chapter, which is devoted to the description of the people, triumphant in the streets of Paris after the downfall of the July Monarchy, as well as to socialist theories - "the philosophy of the February Revolution" - which was at the origin of the "war between the classes" which was to be declared momentarily. Indeed, after having recounted how and why he himself decided to rally behind the Republic, and thus to stand for election to the Constituent Assembly - this first election by universal male suffrage was one of Tocqueville's fondest memories, and inspires some of the most beautifully-written pages in his entire opus - Tocqueville tackles the book's central episode: the country's slide towards the civil war of May 4 to June 26, 1848. Although he was an ardent opponent of the socialist revolution, his account of these events, in particular the cruel days of June 1848, constitute an exceptional document for understanding the spirit, the stakes, and the failure of this celebrated Parisian working class movement.

« The proposed constitution contained thirty-nine articles and was written in less than a month. We could not have gone faster, but we could have done better. »
(Souvenirs)

The second part of Tocqueville's Souvenirs ends with the description of the work of the commission charged with drafting the country's new constitution, of which Tocqueville was a member. The reader of this final chapter can see easily enough that Tocqueville is not so much seeking to determine who holds the power, but the ensure that this power is limited and checked no matter who holds it. And yet, the bitterness with which he describes the way the sessions were conducted, as well as the harshness of his judgment with respect to the final result perhaps convey his political disillusionment at the time he was writing these pages. Henceforth, Souvenirs adopts a darker and more cynical tone, which does not go away.
The third part of Souvenirs, which was started on September 16, 1851, was left unfinished, and the end of the manuscript is in the form of preliminary notes. Tocqueville uses this volume to "retrace" the five months that he spent in the government of France from June 3rd to October 29, 1849. The narrator's task becomes more difficult, since it involves telling the story of a defeat - his own political failure in the management of the very highest affairs of state. His text in this final section thus oscillates endlessly between the search for reasons for this failure and the temptation to justify himself and his choices to the reader. The text wears itself out somewhat, and Tocqueville left off completing Souvenirs in order to devote himself to another work, The Old Regime and the Revolution. This book took his intuitions and questioning about the 1848 Revolution and explored them in more depth in order to study the origins of the French Revolution.

'The Barricade', Gustave Courbet

The Barricade, Gustave Courbet; Paris, musée Carnavalet
© PMVP / Briant

'23 June 1848', F. Bonhomme

23 June 1848
F. Bonhomme; Paris, musée Carnavalet
© PMVP / Briant

'The Barricade', Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonnier

The Barricade
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonnier; Paris, musée du Louvre
© RMN / Bellot

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