Critical assessments

Alexis de Tocqueville

Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848, ed. J.P Mayer and A.P. Kerr, trans. George Lawrence. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1987, 115-119.

[…] I came to the Assembly on the 15th May [1848] without any anticipation of what would happen. The sitting began like any other; and, what was very odd, twenty thousand men had surrounded the Chamber before any sound from outside had indicated their presence. Wolowski was at the rostrum; he was mumbling between his teeth some platitude or other about Poland when the people suddenly demonstrated how close they were by a terrible shout which, bursting through all the windows at the top of the Chamber, left open on account of the heat, fell upon us as if it came from the sky. I would never have imagined it possible for human voices, by combining, to produce such a terrific noise, and the sight of the crowd itself, when it invaded the Assembly, did not strike me as so frightening as that first roar before it came into view. Several deputies, yielding to a first impulse of curiosity or fear, rose; others shouted loudly, ‘Keep your seats.’ Everybody sat down again on his speech and kept on with it for some time. I think it was the first time in his life that people listened to him in silence; but even then it was not he to whom people were listening but to the continually louder soughing of the crowd drawing in closer. […]

Lamartine, who had left when the noise began, came back to the door looking disconcerted; he crossed the central aisle and got back to his seat with long strides, as if pursued by some enemy we could not see. However a few men of the people made their appearance almost at once behind him; they halted on the threshold, surprised at the sight of this vast assembly seated. At the same moment, as on the 24th February, the doors of the galleries burst open with a crash; a flood of people poured into them, filled them, and soon overfilled them. […]

In a moment the crowd had filled the great empty space in the middle of the Assembly and, finding itself short of room, began climbing the narrow aisles between our benches. The overcrowding was worse than ever in these narrow spaces, but the movement did not stop. In all this tumult and commotion the dust and the heat became so stifling that, had only the public interest been in question, I might have gone out to get some fresh air, but honour kept us nailed to our benches.

Some of our invaders were armed, and others appeared to have hidden weapons, but not one seemed to have a fixed resolve to strike us. There was astonishment and ill will rather than enmity in their expressions; in many cases, the satisfaction of a vulgar curiosity seemed to be the dominant feeling; for even in our most bloody insurrections there are always a lot of people, half rascals, half boobies, who fancy they are at the theatre. Furthermore, there seemed to be no obedience to a common leader; it was a rabble, not a troop. I did see some drunks among them, but most of them seemed to be prey to a feverish excitement due to the shouting outside and the stifling, crushing discomfort and heat inside; they were dripping with sweat, although the nature and state of their clothing should have made the heat not particularly disagreeable, for sometimes a good deal of naked skin was showing. In the confused noise rising from the multitude one could sometimes hear very threatening proposals. I saw some men shaking their fists and calling us their agents. They often repeated that word. For some days the ultra-democratic papers had been calling the representatives nothing but agents of the people, and the idea pleased these scoundrels. […]

It was at that moment that I saw a man go up onto the rostrum, and, although I have never seen him again, the memory of him has filled me with disgust and horror ever since. He had sunken, withered cheeks, white lips, and a sickly, malign, dirty look like a pallid, mouldy corpse; he was wearing no visible linen; an old black frockcoat covered his lean, emaciated limbs tightly; he looked as if he had lived in a sewer and only just come out. I was told that this was Blanqui.

Blanqui said a word about Poland, then, turning abruptly to domestic affairs, he demanded revenge for what he called the massacre at Rouen; in threatening terms he reminded us of the misery in which the people had been left and complained of the wrongs they were beginning to suffer at the hands of the Assembly. Having roused his audience in this manner, he returned to Poland and, like Raspail, demanded an immediate vote. […]