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Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (Penguin Classics)

4.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0141441641
ISBN-10: 014144164X
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) was a historian, social critic, and politician. He is best-known for his keen his insights in Democracy in America, but made equally important observations about the French Revolution.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (July 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014144164X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141441641
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #321,146 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mark Stokle on April 22, 2012
Format: Paperback
Alexis De Tocqueville was a 19th century French aristocrat from Normandy who trained as a lawyer and was once a pupil of Francois Guizot, the notoriously corrupt finance minister of King Louis Philippe. He was also a good friend of John Stuart Mill. As a young man, he was sent on an observation tour of the US penal system in 1831. His journey led him to undertake a wider reflection on the nature of democratic ideals in America ("Democracy in America") which is his best known work in the Anglo-Saxon world.

However, De Tocqueville was also a French philosopher and politician whose critique of the 1789 Revolution in France is rightly regarded as one of the most influential political pamphlets ever written. It examines what the real consequences of the revolution were in political terms, and discusses the contradictions they revealed in French society. The views expressed in this book stand in stark contrast to other interpretations of the revolution, notably those of Edmund Burke.

De Tocqueville first destroys the myth that the French Revolution was a struggle of the working classes. 1789 was a bourgeois revolt which enlisted the help of the common people. Many of the great revolutionary leaders were lawyers (Danton, Robespierre), doctors (Marat), journalists (Desmoulins), civil servants (Fouche), or even clergymen (Sieyes, Talleyrand). Louis XIV opened Pandora's box when he initiated the policy of manipulating the middle-classes to undermine the power of the aristocracy. He promoted businessmen like Fouquet and Colbert to important administrative posts, but made sure they had no real political authority. This effectively brought an end to feudalism in France, and greatly enriched the middle classes at the expense of the nobles.
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Edmund Burke's critique of the French Revolution might be the most famous work about that historical event, but Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1850s looked back at that revolution as well in "The Ancien Régime and the Revolution".

De Tocqueville examines what the Revolution did and did not set out to do and the extent to which it was or was not a revolution against religion. He believed that many customs and ideas of the Ancien Régime actually survived the Revolution and that centralization of power was furthered, not impeded, by it.

The author agreed with Burke on the overarching point that gradual reforms of existing institutions are the best way to improve societies, but he did disagree with Burke on some less important issues.

De Tocqueville looks at the issue of class and how the social classes in France eventually became isolated from each other. Some of the other observations he made include the importance of public opinion even under monarchies; the effects of despotism on the altruism of a populace; the supercilious attitude that many government bureaucrats and administrators have toward the populace (something that hasn't changed even today); that rulers who seek to destroy freedom while seeking to preserve its outward form always fail; and the remarkable observation that revolutions sometimes occur not when conditions go from bad to worse, but when conditions are gradually getting better.

Much as the author was able to examine America, he closes with a list of distinct French character traits and contradictions that contributed to the Revolution.
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This inexpensive edition of Tocqueville's perhaps lesser-known work is excellent. I had read "Democracy in America" but was unaware of the existence of this work. The author digs deeply into largely-ignored library resources to document this well-organized investigation of the changes in French cultural from the Manorial System to the French Revolution. What emerges is an explanation of what France lost during the centralized administration of Louis XIV and his successors. The Revolution itself failed to produce democracy because it had lost contact with the roots of local government. Written after Tocqueville had come to see what the emerging democracy in America looked like, this book is an excellent source.
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Extraordinary book. Detailing conditions immediately before the French Revolution.
Translated into easy-to-read prose.
Full of fascinating facts.
Highly recommended to anyone interested in this subject matter.
It is in marked contrast to the subject as typically treated (if at all) in textbooks.
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This may not be the best book that I have ever read, but it is certainly among the most important. The conditions leading up the French Revolution are still alive and well and relevant today. As they say "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".

This book is not necessarily long or difficult to understand but it is dense. I believe that it is best read once and then studied in detail.
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