The State and the Ruling Class: An Anthology of Key Works of Libertarian/Classical Liberal Class Analysis

Compiled by David M. Hart
Table of Contents of the Anthology: <>

[Created: 16 August, 2016]
[Updated: 7 January, 2017 ]


Tocqueville on Class and the Centralization of the State (1859)

Editing History

  • Item added: 14 Oct. 2016
  • 1st Edit:


Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856). <>


Editor's Intro

Key words: administrative centralization, administrative tutellage, centralization, privileged class, functionaries, public functionaries, office-holders, classes/caste, place-hunters



I ONCE heard an orator, in the days when we had political assemblies, call administrative centralization “that noble conquest of the Revolution which Europe envies us.” I am willing to admit that centralization was a noble conquest, and that Europe envies us its possession; but I deny that it was a conquest of the Revolution. It was, on the contrary, a feature of the old regime, and, I may add, the only one which outlived the Revolution, because it was the only one that was suited to the new condition of society created by the Revolution. A careful perusal of this chapter will perhaps convince the reader that I have more than proved this.

I must, at the outset, beg to be permitted to set aside those provinces known as pays d’états, which did actuually, or, at least, had the appearance of partially controlling the administration of their own government.

The pays d’états, situated at the extremities of the kingdom, contained barely one fourth of the total population of France; and, with one or two exceptions, their provincial liberties were in a dying condition. I shall have occasion hereafter to return to them, and to show how far the central power had rendered them subject to the ordinary rules.*

I purpose to devote attention at present chiefly to those provinces which were styled, in administrative parlance, pays d’élection, though there were fewer elections there than any where else. They surrounded Paris on all sides, bordering each on the other, and constituting the fairest portion of France.

A first glance at the old government of the kingdom leaves an impression of a host of diversified rules, and authorities, and concurrent powers. France seems to be covered with administrative bodies and independent functionaries, who, having purchased their offices, can not be displaced. Their functions are often so intertwined and similar that it seems they must clash and interfere with each other.

The courts are invested with some legislative authority. They establish rules, which are binding within the limits of their jurisdiction. They occasionally join issue with the government, blame its measures loudly, and decry its agents. Single judges make the police regulations in the cities and boroughs where they live.

City charters differ widely. Their magistrates bear different titles, or derive their authority from different sources. In one place we find a mayor, in another consuls, in a third syndics. Some of these are chosen by the king; others are appointed by the old seignior, or by the prince in whose domain the city lies; others are elected by the people for a year; others, again, have purchased their office, and hold it for life.

These are all old ruined authorities. Among them, however, is found an institution either new or lately transformed, which remains to be described. In the heart of the kingdom, and close to the monarch, an administrative body of singular power has lately grown up and absorbed all minor powers. That is the Royal Council.

Though its origin is ancient, most of its functions are modern. It is every thing at once: supreme court of justice, for it can reverse the decision of all ordinary tribunals and highest administrative authority, from which all subordinate authorities derive their power. As adviser of the king, it possesses, under him, legislative powers, discusses all and proposes most of the laws, levies and distributes the taxes. It makes rules for the direction of all government agents. It decides all important affairs in person, and superintends the working of all subordinate departments. All business originates with it, or reaches it at last; yet it has no fixed, well-defined jurisdiction. Its decisions are the king’s, though they seem to be the Council’s. Even while it is administering justice, it is nothing more than an assembly of “givers of advice,” as the Parliament said in one of its remonstrances.

This Council is not composed of nobles, but of persons of ordinary or low extraction, who have filled various offices and acquired an extensive knowledge of business. They all hold office during good behavior.

It works noiselessly, discreetly, far less pretentious than powerful. It has no brilliancy of its own. Its proximity to the king makes it a partner in every important measure, but his greater effulgence eclipses it.

As the national administration was in the hands of a single body, nearly the whole executive direction of home affairs was in like manner intrusted to a single agent, the comptroller-general.

Old almanacs furnish lists of special ministers for each province, but an examination of the business records shows that these ministers had very little important business to transact. That fell to the lot of the comptroller-general, who gradually monopolized the management of all money affairs—in other words, the whole public administration. He was alternately minister of finance, of the interior, of public works, of commerce.

On the same principle, one agent in each province suffieed. As late as the eighteenth century, some great seigniors were entitled provincial governors. They were the representatives, often by hereditary descent, of feudal royalty. They enjoyed honors still, but they were unaccompanied by power. The substantial government was in the hands of the intendant.

That functionary was not of noble extraction. He was invariably a stranger to the province, a young man with his fortune to make. He obtained his office neither by purchase, election, nor inheritance; he was selected by the government from among the inferior members of the Council of State, and held his office during good behavior. While in his province, he represented that body, and was hence styled in office dialect the absent commissioner (commissaire départi). His powers were scarcely less than those of the council itself, though his decisions were subject to appeal. Like the Council, he held administrative and judicial authority: he corresponded with ministers; he was, in his province, the sole instrument of the will of government.

Under him he appointed for each canton an officer called a sub-delegate (subdélégué), who also held office during good behavior. The intendant was usually the first noble of his family; the sub-delegate was always a commoner, yet the latter was the sole representative of the government in his little sphere, as the intendant was in his province. He was subject to the intendant, himself subject to the minister.

The Marquis d’Argenson tells us in his Memoirs that one day Law said to him, “I never could have believed beforehand what I saw when I was comptroller of finances. Let me tell you that this kingdom of France is governed by thirty intendants. You have neither Parliament, nor estates, nor governors; nothing but thirty masters of requests, on whom, so far as the provinces are concerned, welfare or misery, plenty or want, entirely depend.”

These powerful officials were, however, outwardly eclipsed by the remains of the old feudal aristocracy, thrown into the shade by its lingering splendor; hence it was that even in their day one saw so little of them, though their hand was every where felt. In society, the nobility took precedence of them in virtue of their rank, their wealth, and the respect always paid to what is ancient. In the government, the nobility surrounded the king and constituted the court; noblemen led the armies and commanded the fleet; they performed those duties, in a word, which are most noticed by contemporaries, and too often best remembered by posterity. A seignior of high rank would have felt himself insulted by the offer of a place of intendant; the poorest gentleman of his house would have disdained to accept it. In their eyes the intendants were the types of usurped authority, new men, employed to look after burghers and peasants; at best, very poor company. For all this, these men governed France, as Law said, and as we shall soon discover.

Let us begin with the right of levying taxes, which may be said to involve all other rights.

It is well known that a portion of the taxes were farmed out to financial companies, which levied them under the directions of the Royal Council. All other taxes, such as the taille, capitation-tax, and twentieths, were established and levied directly by the agents of the central administration, or under their all-powerful control.

Every year the Council fixed and distributed among the provinces the amount of the taille and its numerous accessories. The session and decision of the Council were secret; the taille increased year after year, and no one was aware of it.

The taille was a very old tax; in former times it had been apportioned and levied by local agents, who were independent of government, and held office in virtue of their birth, or by election, or by purchase. Such were the “seignior,” the “parochial collector,” the “treasurers of France,” the “select-men” (èlus). These titles were still in existence in the eighteenth century; but some of the persons who bore them had ceased wholly to have to do with the taille, while others were only concerned with it in a subordinate and secondary capacity. The whole real authority on the subject was in the hands of the intendant and his agents; it was he who apportioned the taille among the parishes, directed and overlooked the collectors, granted delays or remissions.

More modern imposts, such as the capitation-tax, were regulated by government without interference from the surviving officers of the old system. The comptroller-general, the intendant, and the Council fixed the amount of each impost, and levied it without the intervention of the taxables.

Let us pass from money to men.

Surprise has been expressed at the docility with which the French bore the burden of the conscription during and after the Revolution; but it must be borne in mind that they had long been used to it. The militia system which had preceded it was more onerous, though the contingents raised were smaller. From time to time, in the country parts, young men were drawn by lot to serve in militia regiments for a term of six years.

As the militia was a comparatively modern institution, none of the feudal authorities interfered with it; it was wholly under the control of the central government. The entire contingent, and the proportion to be borne by each province, were regulated by the Council. The intendant fixed the number of men to be furnished by each parish. His sub-delegate presided over the lottery, awarded exemptions, decided who were to remain at home and who were to march. It was his duty to hand over the latter to the military authorities. There was no appeal from him but to the intendant and the Council.

It may be added here that, except in the pays d’états, all public works, including those which were exclusively local, were decided upon and undertaken by the agents of the central power.

Other authorities, such as the seignior, the department of finance, the road trustees (grands voyers), were nominally entitled to co-operate in the direction of these works. But practically these old authorities did little or nothing, as the most cursory glance at the records shows. All highways and roads from city to city were built and kept in repair out of the general public fund. They were planned and the contracts given out by the Council. The intendant superintended the engineering work, the sub-delegate mustered the men who were bound to labor. To the old authorities was left the task of seeing to parish roads, which accordingly became impassable.

The chief agent of the central government for public works was the Department of Bridges and Roads (ponts et chaussées). Here a striking resemblance to our modern system becomes manifest. The establishment of Bridges and Roads had a council and a school; inspectors, who traveled each year throughout France; engineers residing on the spot, and intrusted, under the orders of the intendant, with the direction of the works. Most of the old institutions which have been adopted in modern times—and they are more numerous than is generally supposed—have lost their names while retaining their substance. This one has preserved both—a very rare instance.

Upon the central government alone devolved the duty of preserving the peace in the provinces. Mounted police (maréchaussée) were scattered over the kingdom in small detachments, ready to act under the orders of the intendants. It was with these troops, and, in case of need, with the aid of the regular army, that the intendant met all sudden outbreaks, arrested vagabonds, repressed mendicity, crushed the riots which the price of food constantly excited. It never happened that the government was driven to call upon its subjects for assistance, as had been common enough at one time, except in cities, where there was usually a civic guard, composed of men selected and officers appointed by the intendant.

The courts had preserved and frequently exercised the right of making police regulations; but they were only applicable to the territory within the court’s jurisdiction, and not unfrequently to a single place. They were liable to rejection by the Council, and were often so rejected, especially regulations made by inferior courts. On the other hand, the Council constantly made regulations that were applicable to the whole kingdom, as well on matters beyond the authority of the courts as on those which were within the scope of that authority. These regulations, or, as they were then called, Orders in Council (arrêts du conseil), were immensely numerous, especially toward the period of the Revolution. It is hardly possible to mention a branch of social economy or political organization which was not remodeled by Orders in Council during the last forty years of the old regime.

In the old feudal society, the seignior’s extensive rights were counterpoised by extensive obligations. He was bound to succor the indigent on his domain. A trace of this principle is to be found in the Prussian code of 1795, where it is said, “The seignior must see to it that poor peasants receive education. He should, as far as he can, procure means of subsistence for those of his vassals who own no land. If any of them fall into poverty, he is bound to aid them.”

No such law had existed in France for many years. When the seignior’s rights were taken from him, he shook off his obligations. No local authority, or council, or provincial, or parochial association had taken his place. The law obliged no man to take care of the poor in the rural districts; the central government boldly assumed charge of them.

Out of the proceeds of the taxes a sum was annually set apart by the Council to be distributed by the intendant in parochial charities. The needy were instructed to apply to him. In times of distress, it was he who distributed corn or rice. Annual Orders in Council directed that benevolent work-houses should be opened at places which the Orders took care to indicate; at these, indigent peasants could always obtain work at moderate wages. It need hardly be observed that charity dispensed from such a distance must often have been blind and capricious, and always inadequate.pq

Not content with aiding the peasantry in times of distress, the central government undertook to teach them the art of growing rich, by giving them good advice, and occasionally by resorting to compulsory methods. With this view it distributed from time to time, by the hands of its intendants and sub-delegates, short pamphlets on agriculture, founded agricultural societies, promised prizes, kept up at great expense nurseries for the distribution of seeds and plants. Some reduction of the burdens which weighed on agriculture would probably have proved more efficacious; but this was never contemplated for a moment.

At times the Council endeavored to force prosperity on the people, whether they would or no. Innumerable Orders compelled mechanics to make use of certain specified machinery, and to manufacture certain specified articles;r and as the intendants were not always able to see that their regulations were enforced, inspectors-general of industry were appointed to travel through the provinces and relieve them of the duty.

Orders were passed prohibiting the cultivation of this or that agricultural product in lands which the Council considered unsuited to it. Others required that vines planted in what the Council regarded as bad soil should be uprooted. To such an extent had the government exchanged the duties of sovereign for those of guardian.


LET us briefly recapitulate the points established in the three preceding chapters.

A single body, placed in the centre of the kingdom, administering government throughout the country; a single minister managing nearly all the business of the interior; a single agent directing the details in each province; no secondary administrative bodies, or authorities competent to act without permission: special tribunals to hear cases in which government is concerned, and shield its agents. What is this but the same centralization with which we are acquainted? As compared with ours, its forms are less sharply marked, its mode of action less regular, its existence less tranquil; but the system is the same. Nothing has been added, nothing taken away from the old plan; when the surrounding edifices were pulled down, it stood precisely as we see it.

Frequent imitations of the institutions I have just described have since made their appearance in various places,y but they were then peculiar to France. We shall see presently how great an influence they exercised over the French Revolution and its sequel.

But how did these modern institutions find place among the ruins of the old feudal society?

By patient, adroit, persevering labor, rather than by violent arbitrary effort. At the outbreak of the Revolution, the old administrative system of France was still standing, but a new system had been built up inside it.

There is no reason for believing that this difficult exploit was the fruit of a deep scheme laid by the old government. On the contrary, it appears to have been accomplished almost unconsciously, instinct teaching the government and its various agents to acquire as much control as possible. The old officials were left in possession of their titles and their honors, but stripped of their power. They were led, not driven out of their domain. The idleness of one, the selfishness of another, the vices of all, were skillfully turned to account. No attempt was made to convert them, but one and all were quietly replaced by the intendant, whose name had never even been heard at the time they were born.

The only obstacle in the way of the change was in the judiciary department; but there, as elsewhere, the government had contrived to seize the substance, leaving its rivals the outward show of power. It did not exclude the Parliaments from administrative business, but it gradually absorbed their duties till there was nothing for them to do.z On some few rare occasions, as, for example, in times of scarcity, when popular excitements tempted the ambition of magistrates, it allowed the Parliaments to exercise administrative authority for a brief interval, and let them make a noise which has often found an echo in history; but it soon silently resumed its functions, and discreetly assumed sole control of men and things.

A close study of the struggles of the Parliaments against the power of the king will lead to the discovery that they were invariably on political issues, and never on points of administration. Quarrels usually began on the creation of new taxes—that is to say, the belligerents contended for legislative authority, to which neither had any claim, and not for administrative power.

This becomes more apparent as we approach the revolutionary era. As the people’s feelings become inflamed, the Parliament mixes more in politics; and simultaneously, the central government and its agents, with skill enhanced by experience, usurp more administrative power. The Parliament grows daily less like an administration, and more like a tribune.

Day after day, the central government conquers new fields of action into which these bodies can not follow it. Novelties arise, pregnant with cases for which no precedents can be found in parliamentary routine: society, in a fever of activity, creates new demands, which the government alone can satisfy, and each of which swells its authority; for the sphere of all other administrative bodies is defined and fixed; that of the government alone is movable, and spreads with the extension of civilization.

Impending revolution unsettles the mind of the French, and suggests a host of new ideas which the central government alone can realize: it is developed before it perishes. Like every thing else, it is brought to perfection, as is singularly proved by its archives. There is no resemblance between the comptroller-general and the intendant of 1780 and the like officials in 1740: the system has been transformed. The agents are the same, but their spirit is different. Time, while it extends and exercises the power of the government, imparts to it new skill and regularity. Its latest usurpations are marked by unusual forbearance; it rules more imperatively, but it is far less oppressive.

This great institution of the monarchy was thrown down by the first blow of the Revolution: it was raised anew in 1800. It is not true that the principles of government which were then adopted were those of 1789, as so many persons have asserted; they were those of the old monarchy, which were restored, and have remained in force ever since.

If it be asked how this portion of the old regime could be bodily transplanted into and incorporated with the new social system, I reply that centralization was not abolished by the Revolution, because it was, in fact, its preliminary and precursor; and I may add, that when a nation abolishes aristocracy, centralization follows as a matter of course. It is much harder to prevent its establishment than to hasten it. Every thing tends toward unity of power, and it requires no small contrivance to maintain divisions of authority.

It was natural, then, that the democratic Revolution, while it destroyed so many of the institutions of the old regime, should retain this one. Nor was centralization so out of place in the social order created by the Revolution that it could not easily be mistaken for one of its fruits.


LET us now glance at the reverse of the picture, and see how these same Frenchmen, who had so many features in common, were, notwithstanding, split into more isolated groups than any other people or their own ancestry.

There is reason to believe that, at the time the feudal system was established in Europe, the class since known as the nobility did not form a caste, but was composed originally of the chief men of the nation, thus forming a real aristocracy. That is a question which I do not purpose to discuss in this place. I merely observe that in the Middle Ages the nobility had become a caste; that is to say, its distinguishing mark was birth.

It resembled an aristocracy inasmuch as it was the governing body; but birth alone decided who should stand at the head of that body. All who were not of noble birth were excluded from its ranks, and filled a station in the state which might vary in dignity, but was always subordinate.

Wherever the feudal system took root in Europe, it led to the establishment of castes; in England alone it gave birth to an aristocracy.

I have always been surprised that a fact so strikingly peculiar to England, and which is the only true key to the peculiarities of her laws, her spirit, and her history, should have obtained so little notice among philosophers and statesmen. Custom seems to have blinded the English to its importance. It has often been half noticed and half described, but never, I think, fully and clearly realized. Montesquieu, who visited Great Britain in 1739, certainly did write, “I am in a country which does not resemble the west of Europe;” but he went no farther.

The contrast between England and the rest of Europe arose, indeed, less from her Parliament, her liberty, her freedom of the press, and her jury system, than from another and more important peculiarity. England was the only country where castes had been not altered, but thoroughly abolished: noblemen and people engaged in the same avocations, entered the same professions, and, what is more significant, intermarried with each other. The daughter of the greatest nobleman in the land might marry, without dishonor, a man of no hereditary rank.

If you want to ascertain whether castes, and the ideas, habits, and barriers to which they give rise, are really abolished in any nation, look at the marriages which take place there. There you will find the decisive test. Sixty years of democracy have not wholly effaced privileges of caste in France; old families, mixed and confounded with new ones in every thing else, still scorn connection with them by marriage.

It has often been said that the English nobility were more prudent, more skillful, more open than the nobility of any other country. The truth is, that there had not been, for a long period of time, any nobility at all in England, in the old circumscribed meaning of the word.

The revolution which destroyed it is lost in the night of time, but the English tongue is a surviving witness of the change. Many centuries since, the meaning of the word “gentleman” changed in England, and the word “roturier” ceased to exist. When Molière wrote Tartuffe in 1664, it would have been impossible to give a literal English version of the line,

“Et tel que l’on le voit, il est bon gentilhomme.”

Language can be made to throw farther light on the science of history. Follow, for instance, the meanings of the word gentleman throughout its career. Our word “gentilhomme” was its father. As distinctions of classes became less marked in England, its signification widened. Century after century, it was applied to lower and lower classes in the social scale. The English at last bore it with them to America, where it was indiscriminately applied to all classes. Its history is, in fact, that of democracy.

In France, the word “gentilhomme” never acquired more latitude than it possessed at first. Since the Revolution it has become disused, but not modified. The word which described members of the caste was preserved unaltered, because the caste itself was retained as widely distinct as ever from other classes of society.

I will go farther. I maintain that the caste had grown more distinct and exclusive than ever; that the movement of French society had been exactly opposite to that which took place in England.

While the citizen and the noble had grown more like each other, the distance between them had increased; their mutual resemblance had rather alienated than united them.

During the Middle Ages, when the feudal system was in full vigor, the holders of seigniorial lands (who were technically styled vassals), whether nobles or not, were constantly associated with the seignior in the government of the seigniory. That was, in fact, the principal condition of their tenure. They were bound by their titles not only to follow their seignior in arms, but to assist him, for a given time each year, in rendering justice in his court, and administering the government of the seigniory. Seigniorial courts were the mainspring of feudal government; they figure in all the old laws of Europe, and I have found marked traces of them in many parts of Germany even in our own time. A learned feudist, Edme de Fréminville, who thought proper, thirty years before the Revolution, to write a voluminous work on feudal rights and the renewal of court rolls, informs us that he has seen “many seigniorial titles by which the vassals bound themselves to attend, every fortnight, at the seignior’s court, there to sit, jointly with him or his judge in ordinary, in judgment upon disputes and lawsuits between the people of the seigniory.” He adds, that he has “found as many as eighty, a hundred and fifty, and even two hundred vassals, a great proportion of whom were roturiers, pledged to this service in a seigniory.” This I quote, not as a proof of the custom—such evidence abounds—but as an instance of the early and long-continued association of the peasantry with men of rank. They were constantly engaged together in the transaction of the same business. What the seigniorial courts did for small rural landholders, the Provincial States, and, at a later period, the States-General, effected for the middle class in cities.

It is impossible to read the extant records of the States-General and Provincial States of the fourteenth century without being amazed at the weight and power exercised by the Third Estate in these assemblies.

As individuals, the burghers of the fourteenth century were, no doubt, very inferior to those of the eighteenth; collectively, they occupied a higher and more solidly established rank. Their right to take part in the government was uncontroverted; their share in political assemblies was always large, often paramount. The other classes were daily reminded of the necessity of making terms with them.

It is quite striking to notice how easily the nobility and the Third Estate then combined for purposes of action or defense—no easy matter to contrive at a later day. Many of the States-General of the fourteenth century derived an irregular and revolutionary character from the disasters of the time; but the Provincial States of the same period, on which there is no reason to suppose any abnormal influence was operating, contain singular evidence of this harmony. In Auvergne the Three Estates combined to carry out most important measures, and appointed commissioners, chosen equally from each, to superintend their execution. Champagne witnessed a similar spectacle at the same time. Nor is it necessary to do more than hint at the famous league between the nobles and citizens of several cities, by which the leaguers bound themselves, at the beginning of the same century, to defend their national franchises and provincial privileges against the encroachments of the royal power.ef Our history, at that age, is full of similar episodes, which seem to have been borrowed from the history of England. They disappear entirely in later times.

With the disorganization of the seigniorial governments, the increasing infrequency or total cessation of meetings of the States-General, and the ruin of national and local liberties together, the middle classes ceased to associate in public life with men of rank. There was no longer any necessity for their meeting and coming to a mutual understanding. They became daily more independent of each other, and more complete strangers. By the eighteenth century the change was accomplished; the two classes only met accidentally in private life. They were not only rivals, but enemies.

A feature which appears peculiar to France was the seeming aggrandizement of individual noblemen at the cost of the order. While the nobility, as an order, was losing its political power, men of rank were acquiring new privileges and augmenting their old ones. The former had lost its corporate authority, but still the new master chose his chief servants more exclusively than ever from among its members. It was easier for a commoner (roturier) to become an officer under Louis XIV. than Louis XVI. Commoners often obtained office in Prussia at a time when the fact was unexampled in France. All the new privileges were hereditary and inseparable from blood. The more the nobility ceased to be an aristocracy the more it became a caste.

Let us take the most odious of these privileges, the exemption from taxes: it is easily seen that from the fifteenth century to the French Revolution it was constantly on the increase. It became more valuable as the taxes swelled. When the taille was but 1,200,000 livres under Charles VII., the privilege of not being bound to contribute was not worth much; but it was considerable when the tax yielded 80,000,000, under Louis XVI. When the taille was the only tax from which the nobility were exempt, their privileges might pass unnoticed; but when similar taxes had been created in a thousand different shapes and with a thousand different names, when four other imposts had been placed on the same footing as the taille, and new impositions, such as royal corvées on all public works, military duty, &c., had been laid on every class save the nobles only, their privileges appeared immense.g True, the inequality, great as it was, seemed still greater, for the nobleman’s farmer had often to pay the very taxes which his master flattered himself he escaped; but, in these matters, the semblance of injustice is more mischievous than the reality.

Louis XIV., when laboring under the financial difficulties which at last overwhelmed him, toward the close of his reign, created two taxes, a capitation-tax and a land-tax of a twentieth, which were to be paid by all his subjects indiscriminately. But, as though the privilege of the nobility was so intrinsically respectable that it deserved consideration even in cases where it did not apply, care was taken to preserve a distinction in the manner of levying it.hik It was exacted of the people harshly and with marks of degradation; the nobles were respectfully and gently requested to pay.l

The taxes had been unequal all over Europe, but the inequality was more plainly seen and severely felt in France than abroad. The bulk of the taxes in Germany were indirect, and the exemption from direct taxes, enjoyed by the nobility, was only partial—they paid less than other people. They were taxed specially, too, in lieu of the military service they had once been bound to render.

Now, of all the methods that have been devised for the division of nations into classes, unequal taxes are the most pernicious and effective. They tend to isolate each class irremediably; for when the tax is unequal, the line is drawn afresh every year between the taxables and the exempts; the distinction is never allowed to fade. Every member of the privileged class feels a pressing and immediate interest in keeping it up, and maintaining his isolation from the taxable community.

All, or nearly all public measures begin or end with a tax. Hence, when two classes of citizens do not feel the taxes alike, they cease to have common interests and feelings in common; they do not require to meet for consultation; they have no opportunity and no desire to act in concert.

Burke draws a flattering picture of the old constitution of France, and makes a point in favor of the institution of nobility, that commoners might obtain rank by procuring office; he evidently infers an analogy between this feature of our institutions and the open aristocracy of England. Nor can it be denied that Louis XI. bestowed titles freely in order to reduce the power of the nobility, and that his successors did the same thing to get money. Necker states that in his time as many as four thousand offices carried with them noble rank. No similar feature existed elsewhere in Europe. Yet the analogy which Burke seeks to establish between France and England was none the less false.

The real secret of the stanch attachment of the middle classes of England to their aristocracy did not lie in the fact that it was an open body; it flowed rather from the undefined extent and unknown limits of that body. Englishmen bore with their aristocracy less because they could obtain admission within its pale, than because they never knew when they were within, and could always consider themselves part and parcel of it, could share its authority, and derive éclat or profit from its power.

In France, on the contrary, the barrier which separated the nobility from the other classes, though easily surmounted, was always conspicuous, and known by outward and odious marks. The parvenu who overstepped it was separated from his former associates by privileges which were onerous and humiliating for them.

The plan of raising commoners to the nobility, therefore, far from weakening their hatred of the superior class, increased it beyond measure. New nobles were viewed by their old equals with most bitter envy. Hence it was that the Third Estate evinced far more dislike of the new than of the old nobility, and demanded constantly that the entrance to the ranks of the nobility should be, not enlarged, but narrowed.

At no time in our history was it so easy to become a noble as in 1789, and at no time had the nobility and the commonalty been so distinct and separate. Not only did the nobles exclude from their electoral colleges every one who was the least tainted with plebeian blood, but the commoners exhibited equal anxiety to keep out of their ranks all who looked like men of rank. In certain provinces, new nobles were rejected by one party because they were not deemed noble enough, by the others because they were too noble. This happened, it is said, to the celebrated Lavoisier.

The burghers presented a very similar spectacle. They were as widely distinct from the people as the nobles from them.

Nearly the whole middle class under the old regime lived in the cities. Two causes had produced this result: the privileges of men of rank and the taille. Seigniors residing on their estates could afford to be good-natured and patronizing to the peasantry, but they were insolent to a degree to their neighbors of a higher rank. And the more political power they lost, the more proud and overbearing they became. Nor could it be otherwise; for when they were stripped of their authority, they no longer needed to conciliate partners in the business of government, while, on the other hand, they tried to console themselves for the sacrifice of substantial authority by an immoderate abuse of its outward semblance. Their absence from their estates was rather an increased inconvenience than a relief to their neighbors; absenteeism had not even that advantage, and privileges exercised by attorney were only the more intolerable.

I question, however, whether the taille and the other taxes which had been placed on the same footing were not still more effective causes than these.

It would be easy to explain, and that in a few words, why the taille was a more oppressive tax in the country than in the cities; but the reader may not consider such an explanation requisite. It will suffice, therefore, to say that the middle classes domiciled in cities were enabled, in many various ways, to evade the tax, wholly or partially, which they could not have done had they been living on their property in the country. Above all, a city residence saved them from the risk of being chosen to levy the taille. This they dreaded more than the tax itself, and very justly, for there was not, in the whole range of society under the old regime, or even in any society, I believe, a position worse than that of parochial collector of the taille. I shall have occasion to demonstrate this hereafter. Yet, with the single exception of men of rank, no resident of a village could escape the office. Rather than submit to the burden, rich commoners leased their estates and went to live in the nearest city. Turgot is consistent with the secret documents which I have had occasion to consult when he declares that “the collection of the taille converts the landholding commoners of the country into city burghers.” This, it may be observed by the way, was one of the reasons why France was more plentifully sprinkled with towns, and especially small towns, than any other country of Europe.

Inclosed within city walls, the rich commoner lost his rural tastes and feelings. He ceased to take an interest in the toils and concerns of the class he had deserted. His life had henceforth but one object: he aspired to become a public functionary in his adopted city.

It is a grave error to suppose that the rage for office-seeking, which stamps the French of our day, the middle classes especially, sprung up since the Revolution: it dates from a much more ancient period, though constant encouragement has steadily developed and intensified it.

The offices of the old regime were not always like ours, but I think they were more numerous; there was no end to the small ones. Between 1693 and 1709 alone, it has been calculated that forty thousand were created, all within reach of the most slender commoner. I have myself counted, in a provincial town of no great size, in the year 1750, the names of one hundred and nine persons engaged in administering justice, and a hundred and twenty-six more busied in executing their orders. The middle classes really coveted government places with unexampled ardor. The moment a man acquired a little capital, instead of investing it in trade, he bought an office directly. Not even the close companies or the taille have proved as injurious to the commercial and agricultural interests of France as this mania for places. When no offices were vacant, the place-hunters set their imagination to work and soon invented new ones. I find a published memorial of a Sieur Lemberville, in which he proves that inspectors of this or that branch of industry are absolutely needed, and winds up by offering himself for the future office. Who has not known a Lemberville? A man possessed of some education and means did not think it decorous to die without having been a public functionary. “Each in his way,” said a contemporary, “wants to be something by his majesty’s favor.”

The only substantial difference between the custom of those days and our own resides in the price paid for office. Then they were sold by government, now they are bestowed; it is no longer necessary to pay money; the object can be attained by selling one’s soul.

Interest, to a still greater extent than locality or habits of life, drew a line between the middle classes and the peasantry. Complaint is made about the privileges of the nobles, and very justly; but what must be said of those of the middle classes? Thousands of offices carried with them exemptions from this or that impost. One exempted its holder from serving in the militia, another from performing corvées, a third from paying the taille. “Where is the parish,” said a writer of the time, “that does not contain, besides nobles and clergy, a number of inhabitants who have procured some exemption from taxes by obtaining office under government?” The number was so great, in fact, as to produce at times a sensible falling off in the product of the taille; and, now and then, this inconvenience led to the abolition of several useless offices. I have no doubt that exemptions were as frequent among the middle classes as among the nobility, and even more so.

These wretched privileges excited the envy of those who did not enjoy them, and filled their possessors with selfish pride. Nothing more common, during the whole of the eighteenth century, than hostility and jealousy between cities and the surrounding country. Turgot declares that “the towns are monopolized by selfishness, and are always ready to sacrifice the village and country parts in their district.” On another occasion, he reminds his sub-delegates how “often” they have been “obliged to repress the tendency of cities to usurp the rights and encroach upon the privileges of the villages and country parts in their district.”

The middle classes contrived to make strangers and enemies of the lower classes in the cities also. Most of the local taxes were devised so as to fall mainly upon the latter. Turgot remarks somewhere that the middle classes usually contrived to escape the payment of town dues; and this I have found to be correct.

But the most striking characteristic of the middle classes was their fear of being confounded with the people, and their violent desire to escape in some way from popular control.

“If it be the king’s pleasure,” said the burghers of a city in a memorial to the comptroller-general, “that the office of mayor become elective, it would be fitting that the choice of the electors should be restricted to the principal notables, and even to the presidial.”

We have had occasion to notice how steadily the kings pursued the policy of stripping the cities of their political rights. This is the leading feature of their tactics from Louis XI. to Louis XV. The burghers often aided in the accomplishment of these schemes, and sometimes suggested them.

At the time of the municipal reform of 1764, an intendant consulted the municipal officers of a small town on the subject of retaining an elective magistracy, chosen partly by the lower classes. They replied that, to tell the truth, “the people had never abused the franchise, and it would no doubt be agreeable to confirm them in the right of choosing their masters; still it was better, for the sake of order and the public tranquillity, that the matter should be left to the decision of the notables.” The sub-delegate of the same town reported that he had invited to a secret conference “the six leading citizens of the place,” who were unanimously of opinion that the best thing to do was to have the magistrates elected, not by the assembly of notables, as the municipal officers proposed, but by a small committee selected from the various bodies which composed the assembly. The sub-delegate, who was more favorable to popular freedom than these citizens, reported their opinion, but added that “it was hard for mechanics to be deprived of control over moneys exacted from them in virtue of taxes imposed by those among their fellow-citizens who, by reason of the exemption from taxes they enjoyed, were often disinterested in the matter.”

To complete the picture, let us glance at the middle classes independently of their relations to the people, as we examined the nobility independently of its bearing on the middle classes.

The first striking feature in this small part of the nation is infinite subdivision. The French people really seem to resemble those pretended elementary substances which science is unceasingly resolving into new elements the closer it examines them. I have studied a small town in which I found the names of thirty-six different bodies of citizens. These various bodies, small as they were, were constantly hard at work reducing their size; they were ever throwing off some foreign particle or other, and trying to reduce their condition to that of simple elements. This operation had cut down some of them to not more than three or four members. They were none the less quarrelsome and consequential on that account. Peculiar privileges, among which the least decorous were still marks of honor, distinguished each class from the others, and endless was the struggle for precedence among them. Intendant and courts were stunned with the clamor of their quarrels. “It has just been decided that the holy water must be given to the presidial before the city corporation. The Parliament hesitated, but the king evoked the case, and decided it in Council. It was high time; the whole city was in a ferment on the subject.” If one body is granted precedence over another at the assembly of notables, the injured corporation withdraws; it will abandon its public duties rather than see, as it says, its dignity insulted. The corporation of barbers in the city of La Flêche decided “to express in this manner the natural grief which it felt at the precedence awarded to the bakers.” A portion of the notables of a city refused to perform their functions, “because,” said the intendant, “some mechanics had obtained admission to the assembly, and with these the leading citizens could not humble themselves by associating.” Another intendant observed, “If the rank of alderman be given to a notary, that will disgust the other notables, for the notaries are men of low birth, not sons of notables, and have been clerks in their youth.” The six leading citizens, whom I have mentioned above, who were so ready to strip the people of their political rights, were greatly perplexed when called upon to designate who should be notables, and what should be the order of precedence among them. On this point they expressed their views rather by doubts and hints than straightforward suggestions: “They were afraid,” they said, “of hurting the feelings of their fellow-citizens.”

The friction between these small bodies sharpened the peculiar vanity of the French, but extinguished the proper pride of the citizen. Most of these corporations existed in the sixteenth century, but then, after having transacted the business of their exclusive association, they mingled with the other citizens for the transaction of the general concerns of the city. In the eighteenth century no such intermixture took place, for symptoms of municipal life had become rare, and city business was managed by hired agents. Each of these small societies lived for itself alone, thought of nothing but its own affairs, had no interest in any concerns but those which were exclusively its own.

Our ancestors had no such word as “individuality,” which we have coined for our use. They did not need it, because in their time there were no individuals wholly isolated and unconnected with some group or other; but each of the small groups of which French society was composed was intensely selfish, whence arose a sort of collective individuality, so to speak, which prepared men’s minds for the true individuality of the present day.

The strangest feature of the old society was the similarity which existed among all these individuals thus grouped in different sets; they were so alike that when they changed their surroundings it was impossible to recognize them; moreover, in their hearts they regarded the petty barriers which split them into rival cliques as equally contrary to public interest and common sense. In theory they were all for unity. Each held to his set because others did the like; but they were all ready to fuse together into one mass, provided no one obtained peculiar advantages, or rose above the common level.



See Appendix.

Note p, page 59.

public charities granted by the state.—favoritism.

In 1748—a year of great famine and misery, such as often occurred in the eighteenth century—the king granted 20,000 pounds of rice. The Archbishop of Tours claimed that he alone had obtained the gift, and that it ought to be distributed by him alone, and in his diocese. The intendant argued that the gift was made to the whole province, and should be distributed by him to all the parishes. After a long contest, the king, to settle the quarrel, doubled the quantity of rice given to the province, so that the archbishop and the intendant might each distribute half. Both agreed that it ought to be distributed by the curates. No one thought of the seigniors or the syndics. It appears from the correspondence between the intendant and the comptroller-general that the former accused the archbishop of wishing to give the rice to his favorites, and especially to the parishes which belonged to the Duchess of Rochechouart. The collection also contains letters from noblemen which demand aid for their parishes in particular, and letters from the comptroller-general which make reference to the parishes of certain individuals.

Public charities are always liable to abuses under every system; but when distributed from a distance, without publicity, by the central government, they are actually futile.

Note q, page 59.

example of the manner in which these public charities were distributed.

A report, made in 1780 to the Provincial Assembly of Upper Guienne, states, “Out of the sum of 385,000 livres which his majesty has granted to this province from the year 1773, when workhouses were established, to the year 1779 inclusive, the election of Montauban, capital and place of residence of the intendant, has alone had more than 240,000 livres, most of which has been spent in the commune of Montauban.”

Note r, page 60.

powers of the intendant for the regulation of manufactures.

The archives of the intendants’ offices are full of papers which refer to the regulation of industrial enterprises by the intendants.

Not only is labor subject to the inconvenience of trade-companies, guilds, &c., it is liable to be affected by every whim of government, that is to say, of the Council in great matters, of the intendants in small ones. The latter are constantly giving directions about the length of woofs, the kind of thread to use, the pattern to prefer, errors to avoid. Independently of the sub-delegates, they have local inspectors of manufactures under their orders. In this particular centralization had gone farther than it now does; it was more capricious, more arbitrary; it created a swarm of public functionaries, and gave rise to general habits of submission and dependence.

Note also that these habits were imparted to the middle classes, merchants, and traders, which were about to triumph, to a far greater extent than to the classes that were on the point of defeat. Hence, instead of destroying, the Revolution tended to confirm and spread them.

The preceding remarks have been suggested by the perusal of a quantity of correspondence and documents taken from the intendant’s office of the Ile de France, and indorsed, “Manufactures and Fabrics,” “Drapery,” “Drugs.” I have found in the same place reports from the inspectors to the intendant giving full and detailed accounts of their visits of inspection to factories; moreover, various Orders in Council, passed on reports of the intendant, prohibiting or permitting manufactures of certain stuffs, or in certain places, or in certain methods.

The dominant idea in the intercourse of these inspectors with the manufacturer—who, by the way, is treated very cavalierly—seems to be that their duty and the rights of the state compel them to see that the manufacturer not only acts fairly toward the public, but looks after his own interest. They consequently feel bound to make him adopt the best methods, and admonish him on the most trifling details of his business, larding the whole with a profusion of penalties and heavy fines.

Note y, page 79.

how the administrative centralization of the old regime can be best judged in canada.

The physiognomy of governments can be best detected in their colonies, for there their features are magnified, and rendered more conspicuous. When I want to discover the spirit and vices of the government of Louis XIV., I must go to Canada. Its deformities are seen there as through a microscope.

A number of obstacles, created by previous occurrences or old social forms, which hindered the development of the true tendencies of government at home, did not exist in Canada. There was no nobility, or, at least, none had taken deep root. The Church was not dominant. Feudal traditions were lost or obscured. The power of the judiciary was not interwoven with old institutions or popular customs. There was, therefore, no hindrance to the free play of the central power. It could shape all laws according to its views. And in Canada, therefore, there was not a shadow of municipal or provincial institutions; and no collective or individual action was tolerated. An intendant far more powerful than his colleagues in France; a government managing far more matters than it did at home, and desiring to manage every thing from Paris, notwithstanding the intervening 1800 leagues; never adopting the great principles which can render a colony populous and prosperous, but, instead, employing all sorts of petty, artificial methods, and small devices of tyranny to increase and spread population; forced cultivation of lands; all lawsuits growing out of the concession of land removed from the jurisdiction of the courts and referred to the local administration; compulsory regulations respecting farming and the selection of land—such was the system devised for Canada under Louis XIV.: it was Colbert who signed the edicts. One might fancy one’s self in the midst of modern centralization and in Algeria. Canada is, in fact, the true model of what has always been seen there. In both places the government numbers as many heads as the people; it preponderates, acts, regulates, controls, undertakes every thing, provides for every thing, knows far more about the subject’s business than he does himself—is, in short, incessantly active and sterile.

In the United States, on the contrary, the English anti-centralization system was carried to an extreme. Parishes became independent municipalities, almost democratic republics. The republican element, which forms, so to say, the foundation of the English constitution and English habits, shows itself and develops without hindrance. Government proper does little in England, and individuals do a great deal; in America, government never interferes, so to speak, and individuals do every thing. The absence of an upper class, which renders the Canadian more defenseless against the government than his equals were in France, renders the citizen of the English colonies still more independent of the home power.

In both colonies society ultimately resolved itself into a democratic form. But in Canada, so long as it was a French possession at least, equality was an accessory of absolutism; in the British colonies it was the companion of liberty. And, so far as the material consequences of the two colonial systems are concerned, it is well known that in 1763, at the conquest, the population of Canada was 60,000 souls, that of the English provinces 3,000,000.

Note z, page 80.

an example, chosen at haphazard, of the general regulations which the council of state was in the habit of making for the whole of france, and by which it created special misdemeanors of which the government courts had sole cognizance.

I take the first which I happen to find. Order in Council of 29th April, 1779, which enacts that thereafter throughout the kingdom all sheep-growers and sheep-dealers shall mark their sheep in a peculiar manner, under penalty of 300 livres fine. “His majesty orders the intendant to see this order obeyed,” it says, whence it follows that it devolved upon the intendant to pronounce penalties incurred. Another instance: An Order in Council of 21st December, 1778, forbids express companies and wagoners to warehouse the goods they have in charge, under pain of 300 livres fine. “His majesty enjoins upon his lieutenant general of police and his intendants to see to it.”

Note e, page 111.

discussion of public affairs antagonistic to the establishment of castes.

The unimportant labors of the agricultural societies of the eighteenth century show how the general discussion of public affairs militated against castes. Though these assemblages took place thirty years prior to the Revolution, in the midst of the old regime, the mere fact that they discussed questions in which all classes were interested, and that all classes mingled in the discussion, drew men together and effected a sort of fusion. Ideas of reasonable reform suggested themselves to the minds even of the privileged classes, and yet they were mere conversations about agriculture.

I am satisfied that no government but one which relied wholly on its own strength, and invariably dealt with individuals singly, as that of the old regime did, could have maintained the ridiculous and insane inequality which existed at the time of the Revolution. The least touch of self-government would have soon altered or destroyed it.

Note f, page 111.

Provincial liberties may survive national liberty for a time, when they are of old standing, and interwoven with manners, customs, and recollections, and the despotism is new. But it is unreasonable to suppose that local liberties can be created at will, or maintained for any length of time, when general liberty is extinct.

Note g, page 112.

Turgot gives a statement of the extent of the privileges of the nobility, in the matter of taxation, in a memorial to the king. It appears to me to be quite correct.

1st. Privileged persons may claim exemption from taxes for a farm which consumes the labor of four plows. Such a farm in the neighborhood of Paris would usually pay 2000 francs of taxes.

2dly. The same privileged persons pay nothing for woods, meadows, rivers, ponds, or inclosed lands near their chateau, whatever be their extent. Some cantons are almost wholly laid out in meadow or vineyard; in these, seigniors who have their lands managed by a steward pay no impost whatever. All the taxes fall on the taille-payers. The advantage of this is immense.

Note h, page 113.

indirect privilege in respect of taxes.—difference in the manner of collection when the tax is levied on all alike.

Turgot draws a picture of this, which I have reason to believe is correct.

“The indirect advantages of the privileged classes with regard to the capitation-tax are very great. The capitation-tax is naturally an arbitrary impost; it is impossible to divide it among the citizens at large otherwise than blindly. It was found convenient to take the taille rolls, which were already made, as a basis. A special roll was made for the privileged classes; but, as the latter made objections, and the taille-payers had no one to speak for them, it came about that the capitation of the privileged classes was gradually reduced in the provinces to a very small sum, while the taille-payers paid as much for capitation as the principal of the taille.”

Note i, page 112.

another example of inequality in the collection of a uniform tax.

It is known that local imposts were levied on all classes equally; “which sums,” say the Orders in Council authorizing these expenditures, “shall be levied on all persons without distinction, whether privileged or not, jointly with the capitation-tax, or in proportion thereto.”

Note that, as the capitation-tax of taille-payers, which was assimilated to the taille, was always heavier than the capitation of privileged persons, the very plan which seemed to favor uniformity kept up the inequality between the two.

Note k, page 112.

same subject.

I find in a bill of 1764, which designed to render the taxes uniform, all sorts of provisions that were intended to preserve a distinction in favor of the privileged classes in respect to the tax levy. For instance, no property of theirs could be appraised for taxation except in their presence or in the presence of their attorney.

Note 1, page 112.

how the government admitted that, even in the case of taxes weighing alike on all classes, the tax ought to be collected differently from the privileged and privileged classes.

“I see,” said the minister in 1766, “that the most difficult taxes to collect are those which are due by nobles and privileged persons, in consequence of the consideration which the tax-collectors feel bound to pay to these persons. It has resulted from this that they are heavily in arrears on their capitation-tax and twentieths (the taxes which they paid in common with the people).