The Ancient Regime

Author: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

Preface on Political Ignorance and Wisdom.

In 1849, being twenty-one years of age, and an elector, I was very much puzzled, for I had to nominate fifteen or twenty deputies, and, moreover, according to French custom, I had not only to determine what candidate I would vote for, but what theory I should adopt. I had to choose between a royalist or a republican, a democrat or a conservative, a socialist or a bonapartist; as I was neither one nor the other, nor even anything, I often envied those around me who were so fortunate as to have arrived at definite conclusions. After listening to various doctrines, I acknowledged that there undoubtedly was something wrong with my head. The motives that influenced others did not influence me; I could not comprehend how, in political matters, a man could be governed by preferences. My assertive countrymen planned a constitution just like a house, according to the latest, simplest, and most attractive plan; and there were several under consideration - the mansion of a marquis, the house of a common citizen, the tenement of a laborer, the barracks of a soldier, the kibbutz of a socialist, and even the camp of savages. Each claimed that his was "the true habitation for Man, the only one in which a sensible person could live." In my opinion, the argument was weak; personal taste could not be valid for everyone. It seemed to me that a house should not be built for the architect alone, or for itself, but for the owner who was to live in it. Referring to the owner for his advice, that is submitting to the French people the plans of its future habitation, would evidently be either for show or just to deceive them; since the question, obviously, was put in such a manner that it provided the answer in advance. Besides, had the people been allowed to reply in all liberty, their response was in any case not of much value since France was scarcely more competent than I was; the combined ignorance of ten millions is not the equivalent of one man’s wisdom. A people may be consulted and, in an extreme case, may declare what form of government it would like best, but not that which it most needs. Nothing but experience can determine this; it must have time to ascertain whether the political structure is convenient, substantial, able to withstand inclemency, and adapted to customs, habits, occupations, characters, peculiarities and caprices. For example, the one we have tried has never satisfied us; we have during eighty years demolished it thirteen times, each time setting it up anew, and always in vain, for never have we found one that suited us. If other nations have been more fortunate, or if various political structures abroad have proved stable and enduring, it is because these have been erected in a special way. Founded on some primitive, massive pile, supported by an old central edifice, often restored but always preserved, gradually enlarged, and, after numerous trials and additions, they have been adapted to the wants of its occupants. It is well to admit, perhaps, that there is no other way of erecting a permanent building. Never has one been put up instantaneously, after an entirely new design, and according to the measurements of pure Reason. A sudden contrivance of a new, suitable, and enduring constitution is an enterprise beyond the forces of the human mind.

In any event, I came to the conclusion that if we should ever discover the one we need it would not be through some fashionable theory. The point is, if it exists, to discover it, and not to put it to a vote. To do that would not only be pretentious it would be useless; history and nature will do it for us; it is for us to adapt ourselves to them, as it is certain they will accommodate themselves to us. The social and political mold, into which a nation may enter and remain, is not subject to its will, but determined by its character and its past. It is essential that, even in its least traits, it should be shaped on the living material to which it is applied; otherwise it will burst and fall to pieces. Hence, if we should succeed in finding ours, it will only be through a study of ourselves, while the more we understand exactly what we are, the more certainly shall we distinguish what best suits us. We ought, therefore, to reverse the ordinary methods, and form some conception of the nation before formulating its constitution. Doubtless the first operation is much more tedious and difficult than the second. How much time, how much study, how many observations rectified one by the other, how many researches in the past and the present, over all the domains of thought and of action, what manifold and age-long labors before we can obtain an accurate and complete idea of a great people. A people which has lived a people’s age, and which still lives! But it is the only way to avoid the unsound construction based on a meaningless planning. I promised myself that, for my own part, if I should some day undertake to form a political opinion, it would be only after having studied France.

What is contemporary France? To answer this question we must know how this France is formed, or, what is still better, to act as spectator at its formation. At the end of the last century (in 1789), like a molting insect, it underwent a metamorphosis. Its ancient organization is dissolved; it tears away its most precious tissues and falls into convulsions, which seem mortal. Then, after multiplied throes and a painful lethargy, it re-establishes itself. But its organization is no longer the same: by silent interior travail a new being is substituted for the old. In 1808, its leading characteristics are decreed and defined: departments, arondissements, cantons and communes, no change have since taken place in its exterior divisions and functions. Concordat, Code, Tribunals, University, Institute, Prefects, Council of State, Taxes, Collectors, Cours des Comptes, a uniform and centralized administration, its principal organs, are still the same. Nobility, commoners, artisans, peasants, each class has henceforth the position, the sentiments, the traditions which we see at the present day (1875). Thus the new creature is at once stable and complete; consequently its structure, its instincts and its faculties mark in advance the circle within which its thought and its action will be stimulated. Around it, other nations, some more advanced, others less developed, all with greater caution, some with better results, attempt similarly a transformation from a feudal to a modern state; the process takes place everywhere and all but simultaneously. But, under this new system as beneath the ancient, the weak is always the prey of the strong. Woe to those (nations) whose retarded evolution exposes them to the neighbor suddenly emancipated from his chrysalis state, and is the first to go forth fully armed! Woe likewise to him whose too violent and too abrupt evolution has badly balanced his internal economy. Who, through the exaggeration of his governing forces, through the deterioration of his deep-seated organs, through the gradual impoverishment of his vital tissues is condemned to commit inconsiderate acts, to debility, to impotency, amidst sounder and better-balanced neighbors! In the organization, which France effected for herself at the beginning of the (19th) century, all the general lines of her contemporary history were traced. Her political revolutions, social Utopias, division of classes, role of the church, conduct of the nobility, of the middle class, and of the people, the development, the direction, or deviation of philosophy, of letters and of the arts. That is why, should we wish to understand our present condition our attention always reverts to the terrible and fruitful crisis by which the ancient regime produced the Revolution, and the Revolution the new regime.

Ancient régime, Revolution, new régime, I am going to try to describe these three conditions with exactitude. I have no other object in view. A historian may be allowed the privilege of a naturalist; I have regarded my subject the same as the metamorphosis of an insect. Moreover, the event is so interesting in itself that it is worth the trouble of being observed for its own sake, and no effort is required to suppress one’s ulterior motives. Freed from all prejudice, curiosity becomes scientific and may be completely concentrated on the secret forces, which guide the wonderful process. These forces are the situation, the passions, the ideas, the wills of each group of actors, and which can be defined and almost measured. They are in full view; we are not reduced to conjectures about them, to uncertain divination, to vague indications. By singular good fortune we perceive the men themselves, their exterior and their interior. The Frenchmen of the ancient régime are still within visual range. All of us, in our youth, (around 1840-50), have encountered one or more of the survivors of this vanished society. Many of their dwellings, with the furniture, still remain intact. Their pictures and engravings enable us to take part in their domestic life, see how they dress, observe their attitudes and follow their movements. Through their literature, philosophy, scientific pursuits, gazettes, and correspondence, we can reproduce their feeling and thought, and even enjoy their familiar conversation. The multitude of memoirs, issuing during the past thirty years from public and private archives, lead us from one drawing room to another, as if we bore with us so many letters of introduction. The independent descriptions by foreign travelers, in their journals and correspondence, correct and complete the portraits, which this society has traced of itself. Everything that it could state has been stated, except,

* what was commonplace and well-known to contemporaries,

* whatever seemed technical, tedious and vulgar,

* whatever related to the provinces, to the bourgeoisie, the peasant, to the laboring man, to the government, and to the household.

It has been my aim to fill this void, and make France known to others outside the small circle of the literary and the cultivated. Owing to the kindness of M. Maury[1] and the precious indications of M. Boutaric, I have been able to examine a mass of manuscript documents. These include the correspondence of a large number of intendants, (the Royal governor of a large district), the directors of customs and tax offices, legal officers, and private persons of every kind and of every degree during the thirty last years of the ancient regime. Also included are the reports and registers of the various departments of the royal household, the reports and registers of the States General in 176 volumes, the dispatches of military officers in 1789 and 1790, letters, memoirs and detailed statistics preserved in the one hundred boxes of the ecclesiastical committee, the correspondence, in 94 bundles, of the department and municipal authorities with the ministries from 1790 to 1799, the reports of the Councilors of State on mission at the end of 1801, the reports of prefects under the Consulate, the Empire, and the Restoration down to 1823. There is such a quantity of unknown and instructive documents besides these that the history of the Revolution seems, indeed, to be still unwritten. In any event, it is only such documents, which can make all these people come alive. The lesser nobles, the curates, the monks, the nuns of the provinces, the aldermen and bourgeoisie of the towns, the attorneys and syndics of the country villages, the laborers and artisans, the officers and the soldiers. These alone enable us to contemplate and appreciate in detail the various conditions of their existence, the interior of a parsonage, of a convent, of a towncouncil, the wages of a workman, the produce of a farm, the taxes levied on a peasant, the duties of a tax-collector, the expenditure of a noble or prelate, the budget, retinue and ceremonial of a court. Thanks to such resources, we are able to give precise figures, to know hour by hour the occupations of a day and, better still, read off the bill of fare of a grand dinner, and recompose all parts of a fulldress costume. We have even, on the one hand, samples of the materials of the dresses worn by Marie Antoinette, pinned on paper and classified by dates. And on the other hand, we can tell what clothes were worn by the peasant, describe the bread he ate, specify the flour it was made of, and state the cost of a pound of it in sous and deniers.[2] With such resources one becomes almost contemporary with the men whose history one writes and, more than once, in the Archives, I have, while tracing their old handwriting on the time-stained paper before me, been tempted to speak aloud with them.

H. A. Taine, August 1875.


[1]. Taine’s friend who was the director of the French National Archives. (SR.)

[2]. One sou equals 1/20th of a franc or 5 centimes. 12 diniers equaled one sou. (SR.)


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Chicago: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, "Preface on Political Ignorance and Wisdom.," The Ancient Regime, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The Ancient Regime (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed June 8, 2023,

MLA: Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe. "Preface on Political Ignorance and Wisdom." The Ancient Regime, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The Ancient Regime, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 8 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Taine, HA, 'Preface on Political Ignorance and Wisdom.' in The Ancient Regime, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Ancient Regime, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 8 June 2023, from