Tocqueville on the American and French Revolutions

The American and French Revolutions are often thought of as entirely distinct types. But was there a connection? Here’s a little cold water thrown on the claim of distinctiveness by Tocqueville, from The Old Regime and the Revolution (201, Furet & Melonio, eds):

Our revolution has often been attributed to that of America: in fact, the American Revolution had a lot of influence on the French Revolution, but less because of what was then done in the United States than because of what was being thought at the same time in France. While in the rest of Europe the American Revolution was still nothing but a new and unusual fact, among us it only made more evident and more striking what we thought we already knew. It astonished Europe; here, it completed our conversion. The Americans seemed merely to apply what our writers had thought of: they gave substantial reality to what we were dreaming about….

The writers not only furnished their ideas to the people who made the Revolution; they also gave them their own temperament and disposition. Under this long training, in the absence of any other directors, in the midst of the profound practical ignorance in which they lived, the whole nation ended up adopting the instincts, the attitudes, the tastes, and even the eccentricities of those who write; with the result that when the nation finally had to act, it brought all the habits of literature into politics.

When we study the history of our Revolution, we see that it was carried out in precisely the same spirit in which so many abstract books on government are written. The same attraction for general theories, for complete systems of legislation and exact symmetry in laws; the same contempt for existing facts; the same confidence in theory; the same taste for the original, the ingenious, and the new in institutions; the same desire to remake the whole constitution all at once, following the rules of logic and according to a single plan, rather than trying to fix its various parts. A frightening sight! For what is merit in a writer is sometimes vice in a statesman, and the same things which have often made lovely books can lead to great revolutions.

Happy Independence Day…

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