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Today's History: The French Revolution of 1848

From Arthur Goldhammer's forthcoming translation of de Tocqueville's Recollections:

I returned to the chamber and regained my seat. Nearly all the deputies had left. The benches were filled by people from the streets. Lamartine, still at the podium and framed by the two flags, continued to harangue the crowd, or, rather, converse with it, for there were as many orators as listeners, or so it seemed to me. The confusion was at its height.

In a moment of relative calm, Lamartine began to read out a list of names of individuals somebody or other had proposed as members of the provisional government that had somehow just been proclaimed. Most of these names drew applause, a few were rejected by murmurs, while still others were greeted with mirth, for in popular uprisings as in Shakespeare’s dramas, the burlesque jostles with the tragic.

Revolutionary passions were thus tinctured at times with sarcasm. When Garnier-Pagès’s name was proposed, I heard someone shout: “You are making a mistake, Lamartine: the good one is dead.” Garnier-Pagès of course had a famous brother with whom he had little in common but his last name.

M. de Lamartine was beginning to find his position quite embarrassing, I believe, because in a riot as in a novel, the most difficult thing to imagine is how it ends, but just then someone took it in mind to shout “To the Hôtel de Ville.”

“Yes, to the Hôtel de Ville,” Lamartine replied, whereupon he left the chamber, taking with him half the crowd. The other half remained with Ledru-Rollin, who, in order I suppose to preserve for himself a leading role, felt he had to begin again the whole process of a sham election, after which he, too, left for the Hôtel de Ville. There, the same electoral charade was repeated yet again.

In that connection, I cannot refrain from recounting an anecdote that was told to me some months later by M. Marrast. Although it interrupts my narrative, it paints a marvelous portrait of the two men who at this point in the story played the leading roles and illustrates the difference between them, if not in their sentiments then at least in their upbringing and mores.

A list of candidates for the provisional government had been hastily drawn up. The problem, Marrast told me, was how to announce these names to the people. “I gave it to Lamartine and asked him to read it out loud from the top of the stairs.”

“I cannot,” Lamartine replied after perusing the list. “My name is on it.”

“I then passed the list to Crémieux,” Marrast continued. “He read it and said: ‘You must be joking. You’re asking me to read a list on which my name does not appear?’”


From where I sat, I could easily hear what was said and above all see what was done on the Montagnard benches. I had the opportunity to study rather closely the men who inhabited that part of the Chamber. For me it was like discovering a new world. We console ourselves for our lack of knowledge of foreign countries by telling ourselves that at least we know our own, but we are wrong, for there are always regions we have not visited and races of men of which we know nothing.

I felt this strongly at the time. It was as if I was seeing these Montagnards for the first time, for their idiom and manners were so strange to me. They spoke a jargon that was neither the French of the ignorant nor that of the literate but suffered from the defects of both, for it was full of coarse words and ambitious turns of phrase. An endless stream of personal insults and humorous barbs emanated from the Montagnard benches. Jocular quips jockeyed with sententious judgments, and the tone varied from the ribald to the pretentious.

These men were clearly no more at home in the tavern than in the salon. I suspect they had polished their manners in the in-between space of the cafés and nourished their minds solely on newspapers. In any case, it was the first time since the beginning of the revolution that men of this sort had manifested themselves in any of our assemblies. Their kind had previously been represented only by isolated and obscure individuals, who had been more concerned with hiding their presence than with flaunting it.