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The Pennsylvania State University

Revolution or Regression?
A Comparative Analysis of the Writings of Tocqueville and Burke on the French Revolution

Daniel Hizgilov
History 418
Professor Barnhart
April 12 2016

Tempers flare, riots rage, and heads roll as revolution takes over France. The nation that
housed Europes most deeply entrenched absolute monarchy has chosen to systematically
destroy all traces of its feudal past in favor of an egalitarian society of enlightened and free
men, only to see it revert to its authoritarian roots both in principle and in practice. The
Revolutions rhetoric may have flaunted the new idea of a republic in France, but in reality it
only served to mask the gross ironies and contradictions of its socio-political structure that was
more representative of true despotism than the late stages of the so-called old regime. Two
historians, Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, bring to light the paradox that was the
French Revolution in their respective works, though through strikingly different lenses. While
Tocqueville, a child of the Revolution raised in its social and political shadow, provides a
studious historical analysis of the events before his birth in 1805, Burke, a contemporary of the
Revolution offers a satirical critique of its defining features and a condescending commentary on
its earliest failures. Both historians find overlap in their commentary and critique, but Burke
more compellingly highlights the inherent contradictions that made the early stages of the
Revolution so telling of the terror and authoritarianism that was to come.
What initially strikes a reader of Tocqueville and Burke is the distinctly different manner
in which both historians write. Tocqueville, born and raised a generation after Burke, uses a
more simplified prose and literary style that appeals to a broader audience of his contemporaries.
His voice is clear, analytical and scholarly, portraying an interpretation of the Revolution that is
well researched and thought out. He focuses on key events, analyzing their context and meaning
through his broader understanding of the Revolutionary narrative that runs counter to the
conventional narrative at the time; that the Revolution was a continuation and completion of the
centralization that the monarchy intended to implement, but failed to carry out. Burke, on the

other hand, approaches the subject in the way only an enlightenment scholar could. He utilizes
elitist satire and a mocking tone all the while applying an astute analysis of why the Revolution
of 1789 was a negative step for France. An example of this elitism appears in his passionate
stance against the representatives of Frances Third Estate; individuals that he refers to as a
handful of country clowns some of whom are said not to be able to read and write (Burke, p.
6). Burkes more intricate manner of writing stems from his background as an enlightenment
thinker of the mid-18th century. This, coupled with his astute sense of satire makes for a more
poignant critique of the Revolutionary inconsistencies between the desired goals of liberty and
equality and actual political actions taken in 1789 by Frances representatives in the National
Assembly.
Both historians have distinctive audiences that are reflected in the styles of their writing.
Tocqueville is writing to a broad audience of Frenchmen who would have little difficulty
interpreting his work. His more simplified writing style, which stems from the mid 19th century
nature of his work, and concise prose help to make it appealing to both middle class and wealthy
readers who may not be scholars or political experts. Because he is writing in 1856, when more
of the French population is educated, he needs to appeal to a broader audience. Burke, although
framing his piece as if he is writing to the people of France, is instead writing to an academic
audience of elites. His work is directed towards his contemporaries and colleagues who are also
enlightenment thinkers and political leaders. Writing from a British perspective means that he is
also writing to a multinational audience while Tocqueville's work, although printed and
distributed in other languages, was written from a Frenchmans perspective for Frenchmen. From
a figurative perspective, Tocqueville is writing to anyone willing to learn from the mistakes of
the Revolution and avoid repeating them. this nation, which alone seems to have learned

wisdom from the errors and failings of its former rulers, has been unable to rid itself of the
false notions, bad habits, and pernicious tendencies which they had given it (Tocqueville, p.
137). The mistakes made by prior generations of Frenchmen must not be repeated by his
contemporary generation. Burke is instead writing in a condescending manner that indicates his
attempt to both lecture and mildly amuse his readers. He writes in the voice and tone of a
disapproving father, lecturing his son on the fallacy of his youthful decision-making.
An important factor to consider is the relationship between the historians frame of
reference and the impact this has on their interpretations. Tocqueville is writing in the 1850s, at a
time when the republican principles that he wholeheartedly supports are being superseded by a
new authoritarian regime in France: Louis-Napoleons Second French Empire (Drescher). The
new French Empire was created in a coup detat of the Second Republic in similar fashion to
Napoleon Bonapartes overthrow of the First Republic (Durghali). Tocqueville was particularly
critical of the Second Empire and actually resigned from his position in the government after
refusing to take an oath. As a result, Tocqueville is in an unusual position of trying to justify the
somewhat nostalgic tone he has for the Old Regime in his writings while rejecting its ultimate
results in the blending of Monarchy and Presidency that occurred within French political culture
in the 19th century. Burke is instead writing in 1790, before the Reign of Terror and rise of
Napoleon. He has only observed the revolutions earliest year as the monarchy became bound to
a legislature and is critiquing it through the ways in which it failed to emulate Britains
parliamentary system and build upon its present foundations for a successful modern society.
Because of this disconnect, Tocqueville is given the opportunity to respond to Burke
within his writings and he is not shy when it comes to pointing out inconsistencies in Burkes
writing with the events that followed. Burke, though his loathing of the Revolution from the

very start seems to have stimulated his powers of observation was in two minds about its
probable effects. His first impression was that France would be weakened almost to the point of
extinction (Tocqueville, p. 2). Tocqueville points out that in hindsight, Burke was
overdramatizing the negatives of the Revolution. He makes similar critiques of other points that
Burke makes such as the fact that Burke missed the point of the Revolution; that it was
inevitably meant to collapse the old social structure as well as his view of the nobility being
similar in both France and England being somewhat inconsistent with the actual facts.
Burke and Tocqueville also comment on the nature of the French Revolution in
comparison with the American Revolution and how both revolutions resulted in different
outcomes due to the different moeurs or cultural and political institutions that were in place in
each country before the revolution. According to both historians, political culture in America
already had liberty and equality enshrined in its social system. The physical distance of the
American colonies from Britain made for local representative governments, its English protestant
and enlightenment roots provided a notion of equality, and the relatively untamed and rural lands
made for an environment where economic opportunity was abundant. From Magna Carta to the
Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our
liberties as an entailed inheritance said Burke of Britains political culture (Burke, p. 1). Where
France is concerned, the historians views complicate. Tocqueville finds France to have been
lacking in the concept of liberty in the old regime and thus unable to sustain it past the attempted
creation of protected liberties in 1789. Instead, the Revolution focused on imposing equality on
the population. In France, the laws of the old regime were disconnected from the moeurs and
thus resulted in a parallelism between the legal privileges of the upper orders and the realm of
reason and logic created by the philosophes who didnt have any real influence in government,

unlike in England. The Revolution was thus a destruction of the corporate bodies and privileges
that plagued France. For Burke, France had the entire framework in place to build a successful
constitutional monarchy that could uphold the rights of the people just like in Britain. The
Revolution failed at the critical point when it tried to dissolve the distinctions between the
classes in the Estates General and remove the presence of corporate bodies from society:
The British House of Commons, without shutting its doors to any merit in any
class, is, by the sure operation of adequate causes, filled with everything
illustrious in rank That [National] assembly, since the destruction of the orders,
has no fundamental law, no strict convention, no respected usage to restrain it.
(Burke, p. 6,7)
As the French continued to strip away the vestiges of their old political system, the foundations
for a stable democratic constitutional monarchy, according to Burke, were scrapped with it.
Tocqueville and Burke have inherently different views of human nature that drive their
analyses. For Tocqueville, humans are naturally greedy. This greed can be a major detriment to
an individuals moral standing, but cumulatively could engulf a society. Every Frenchman was
dissatisfied with his lot and quite decided to better it this rankling discontent made him at once
impatient and fiercely hostile to the past before long the government itself was infected by this
spirit (Tocqueville, p. 171). As Frances prosperity grew, so too did the desire for increased
growth. Once the economy could no longer offer that prosperity, elites decided that they wanted
more say politically and incited political change. Burke, instead, chooses to engrain a view of
human nature that emphasizes the concept of natural hierarchy. For him, true social and
economic equality cannot exist in a functional society. Without class distinction, be it formal or
informal--such as in the United States where wealth determines social standing-- society cannot

have the order and stability that is necessary for functional prosperity. The historians do not
have conflicting views of human nature implied in their works, rather they focus on different
aspects of human nature to explain their point of view.
With all this considered, a clearer understanding of each historians view of the
Revolution emerges. Tocqueville sees the Revolution as developing a vast, highly centralized
power which attracted to itself and welded into an organic whole all the elements of authority
and influence (Tocqueville, p. 8). The Revolution was ultimately a massive centralization of
power in the government that the old regime had tried to implement, but never finished. As the
government became more centralized, as if by some divine plan, it returned to its monarchical
roots in a more functional manner; Napoleons rise and coup and the subsequent Bourbon
restoration proved that monarchy could be prosperous for France with the foundation of
Revolutionary centralized government beneath it. Burke interprets the Revolution from a
completely different perspective. For Burke, the Revolution is not a continuation of the old
regime that managed to finish its agenda; the Revolution, at its earliest moments, was a break
from the old regime and all of its positive foundational structures that could have made it a
highly functional constitutional monarchy:
You possessed the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might
have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. Your
constitution was suspended before it was perfected; but you had the elements of a
constitution very nearly as good as could be wished. (Burke, p. 1,2)
France could have followed in Britains path: the system of corporations and foundations that
were born out of a conflict of interests, provided a societal check on despotism, making
deliberation a matter of necessity and facilitating democracy. The presence of various interests

makes liberty more secure in that no singular interest will gain enough power to oppress those
that it opposes. Britains parliament contained multiple parties that all had different
constituencies. France lacked such diversity in its government, but could have built on the
societal structures in place to create it instead of trashing those structures in favor of uniformity
and conformity.
As the two historians build up their narratives, both focus on differing points in time.
Tocqueville, considering that he has the ability to review the Revolution in hindsight, focuses on
the key transitional events and the years in which they occurred. He comments on the meeting of
the Estates General, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the events of 1790, the fall
of the monarchy, and eventually the terror and Napoleon. Tocqueville is able to use each event to
create a logical timeline that flows with his conceptual basis of the Revolution being a direct
continuation of the old regime. Whats fascinating about Burkes work is his ability to forecast
the coming events of the Revolution with no possible way of knowing about their occurrence.
Writing in 1790, at a time when the Revolution was still stable under the leadership of Lafayette,
he accurately predicts that the revolutionary leaders will go blind with power, and plunge the
country into chaos.
Perhaps the single most important point implied in the two historians works, hinges on
their interpretations of the Revolution's impact. Tocqueville sees the Revolution as an undying
force that continues to affect France well into the 19th century. The Revolution never had a real
negative period outside of the Terror, even as France reverted to its monarchical roots. The
country had been properly centralized which made the government much more efficient and
better equipped to handle the modernizing economy and also guaranteed certain rights to its
citizens that had been nonexistent during the old regime. Burkes view is more cynical, even

without knowledge of the plunge into despotism that France would take. From the point in time
that the Revolution was its least extreme, 1789, he derides the demolition of the social orders and
the destruction of old regime values and principles rooted in the notion of individual privileges.
Clearly to him, the revolution was far from a positive force. This is what makes Burkes analysis
so compelling. He challenges the notion that Frances Revolution was truly democratic and
benefited French society. Instead, France should have looked to its rich past, its traditions, and its
neighbor across the Channel in its quest to reform.
The French Revolution was a period of socio-political upheaval in France that ultimately
resulted in a singular accomplishment; the centralization of the government. After analysis of the
historical interpretations of Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, it becomes strikingly
clear that the Revolution ultimately resulted in a return to authoritarianism that had long been a
staple of French governance. Tocqueville and Burke see the Revolution through different
perspectives and frames of chronological reference, but both manage to find overlap in their
critique. Burke though, even with his lack of knowledge of events past 1790, is able to more
compellingly highlight the inconsistencies in French society that ultimately caused the
Revolution to fail at achieving the individual liberty and political harmony that could be seen in
his homeland of Great Britain. It seems that the Revolution wasnt so much a progressive
revolution as it was a regression into Europes dark, brutish past.

Bibliography
Drescher, Seymour. "Alexis De Tocqueville." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed April
11, 2016. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexis-de-Tocqueville.
Durghali, Matthew. "Coup D'Etat of 1852." SILVAPAGES. Accessed April 11, 2016.
http://ibatpv.org/projects/france/second_emp/coup_detat.htm.