Radical ideas furnished an entertaining social pastime for the aristocracy, but neither they nor anyone else discerned that all of France’s institutions as well as its social fabric would face a devastating assault. When he finished compiling a list of the grievances contained in the Caheirs de doléances (the 60,000 pamphlets written in response to the king’s request for comments on the state of the nation), Tocqueville was thunderstruck. “I realize with a kind of terror that what is being demanded,” he wrote with stupefaction, “is the simultaneous and systematic abolition of all the laws and customs of the country. I see that it will be a question of one of the most dangerous revolutions that ever took place in the world.”

And yet the proponents of this radical change, who would be its unwitting future victims, had no notion of the violence that would accompany such a total and sudden transformation of French society. They naïvely thought that the whole process could be carried out through “reason” alone.