Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
It is incorrect to say that centralization was produced by the French Revolution: the Revolution brought it to perfection, but did not create it. The mania for centralization and government regulation dates from the period when jurists began to take a share in the government, in the time of Philip the Fair; ever since this period they have been on the increase. In the year 1775 M. de Malesherbes, speaking in the name of the Cour des Aides, said to Louis XVI: 1
“Every corporation and every community of citizens retained the right of administering its own affairs, a right which not only forms part of the primitive constitution of the kingdom, but has a still higher origin; for it is the right of nature and of reason. Nevertheless, your subjects, Sire, have been deprived of it; and we do not fear to say that, in this respect, your government has fallen into puerile extremes. From the time when powerful ministers made it a political principle to prevent the convocation of a national assembly, one consequence has succeeded another, until the deliberations of the inhabitants of a village are declared null if they have not been authorized by the Intendant. Of course, if the community has an expensive undertaking to carry through, it must remain under the control of the sub-delegate of the Intendant, and, consequently, follow the plan he proposes, employ his favorite workmen, pay them according to his pleasure; and if an action at law is deemed necessary, the Intendant’s permission must be obtained. The cause must be pleaded before this first tribunal previous to its being carried into a public court; and if the opinion of the Intendant is opposed to that of the inhabitants, or if their adversary enjoys his favor, the community is deprived of the power of defending its rights. Such are the means, Sire, which have been exerted to extinguish the municipal spirit in France and to stifle, if possible, the opinions of the citizens. The nation may be said to lie under an interdict, and to be in wardship under guardians.”
What could be said more to the purpose at the present day, when the Revolution has achieved what are called its victories in centralization?
In 1789 Jefferson wrote from Paris to one of his friends:
“There is no country where the mania for over-governing has taken deeper root than in France, or been the source of greater mischief.” ( Letter to Madison, August 28, 1789. )
The fact is that for several centuries the central power of France has done everything it could to extend central administration; it has acknowledged no other limits than its own strength. The central power to which the Revolution gave birth made more rapid advances than any of its predecessors, because it was stronger and wiser than they had been. Louis XVI committed the welfare of the municipal communities to the caprice of an Intendant; Napoleon left them to that of the Minister. The same principle governed both, though its consequences were more or less far-reaching.
1 See M‚moires pour servir a l’histoire de la France en matiŠre d’impots, Brussels, 1779, p. 654.
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