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Tocqueville Studies

ISSUE:  Spring 1991
Tocqueville: A Biography. By Andre Jardin, translated by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $14.95.
Tocqueville and the Two Democracies. By Jean-Claude Lamberti, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard. $50.00.

Alexis de Tocqueville has still not been accorded the stature he deserves as a political theorist. It is of course widely acknowledged that he wrote the greatest study ever made about America; but the two-volume Democracy in America is unclassifiable and therefore hard to assign in universities. It is also generally thought that The Old Regime and the French Revolution is a masterpiece, yet it is not readily comparable to other works of 19th-century political thought since it does not directly address the most abstract problems. It almost seems that those figures who are the greatest writers, like Tocqueville himself, are among the last to earn full recognition, on the grounds that their lucidity makes them suspect; more abstruse writers, who demand exegesis, readily attract scholars. In any event one would have thought that Tocqueville’s Recollections, one of the most extraordinary political memoirs I have ever read, would have been enough by itself to be convincing about his genius; yet it has up till now attracted relatively little interest.

It turns out that even after more than 130 years since his death in 1859 abundant archival material has remained to be tapped. The Tocqueville family archives comprise some 110 cartons, 23 of them consisting of his correspondence. Some of this historical evidence has been used in the definitive edition of Tocqueville’s work which has been coming out in Paris, and which is now nearing completion. In addition, a collection at Yale consists not only of the travel diaries of Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont but a large part of their American correspondence and their manuscripts, including rough drafts at various stages of the completion of Democracy in America.

The plenitude of Tocqueville materials does raise some interesting methodological questions. For it is still an unsettled matter how one weighs, for example, a writer’s letters to friends, associates, and family, as opposed to a thinker’s published texts; private communications can be at least as telling about a writer’s intentions, and sometimes more so, than works published in a theorist’s lifetime. Tocqueville’s magnificent Recollections came out posthumously. Yet at the same time one hesitates to detract from the status ordinarily accorded to a work like Democracy in America, or The Old Regime. It seems to me a perplexity what standing should be accorded to early drafts of the published texts. With other, older figures, a similar problem does not as often arise, usually for lack of the available private evidence. On the whole, political theorists have not paid as much attention as they should have to the significance of documents other than public works. (It seems to me, for example, a scholarly scandal that we do not have readily available Thomas Hobbes’ letters, even though he is generally acknowledged the greatest political philosopher in the English language; such so-called private material deserves to be fully integrated into our accounts of Hobbes’ more formal writings.)

Andre Jardin’s biography of Tocqueville is the first comprehensive one ever to appear, and it is masterly. Only the first page or two make for hard reading; I found that it took a few difficult minutes for the book to transport one imaginatively to French culture, and that after one had made the appropriate mental adjustment the rest was easy.

Although Tocqueville’s aristocratic lineage is hardly news, Jardin spells his ancestry out with details that are unforgettable. A comrade of William the Conqueror belonged to Tocqueville’s family; the great writer had noble ancestors on both his father’s and his mother’s side. His father was a prefect under Louis XVIII. Tocqueville was part of the best aristocratic tradition for whom “morality consisted of serving the State, defending the liberty of all, hating tyranny.” And the “center of interest” of Tocqueville’s intellectual life was the historic movement which constituted the transition from aristocratic society to a democratic one. For Tocqueville, nations were like people in that, as he put it, “circumstances of birth and growth affect all the rest of their careers.” And a key insight of his about the United States was that it had been able to avoid a European-like revolution: “The great advantage of the American is that he has arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that he is born equal without having to become so.”

Although some of Tocqueville’s most significant ideas are by now well known, Jardin fills out his life with new biographical material. Tocqueville married at the age of 30 an Englishwoman who came from a middle-class family; she was years older than he, but the marriage, which caused family scandal, regularized a liaison that had already lasted for some time. The couple had no children; but their relationship succeeded in giving Tocqueville the security he needed. Evidently his wife complemented his “unstable” nature, and her maternal side was able to cope with Tocqueville’s characteristics as a “spoiled child.” Among the many fascinating details to be learned from Jardin’s biography is that the language of the household was English.

If he stood up to his family with his marriage, professionally he had been more compliant; in accord with their wishes he had studied law from 1823 to 1826. He evidently expected to spend a lifetime in the judiciary. Then in 1831 Tocqueville undertook, with his good friend Gustave de Beaumont, their famous trip to America, which was to involve their spending a little over nine months in North America. Their pretext for the journey was to study how to reform the French system of penal incarceration. Their willingness to pay for the trip themselves had facilitated the formal leave of absences they secured. But their intention to study the American penitentiary system was an excuse; for “what Tocqueville sought knowledge of . . .was the way of life in a democracy, a prototype of the future for France.”

As Frenchmen they were exempt from being the objects of scorn that the Americans then felt for the British. Their letters back to France vividly complement what later appeared in print. Their travels brought them in contact with many levels of American society; and they managed to meet Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, as well as President Jackson. The first volume of Democracy, written in less than a year, was published early in 1835, and immediately became “the book of the year” in Paris. It was widely recognized to be a classic. The writing of volume two of Democracy took some four years; this more complex work, published in 1840, did not win the same immediate applause. Throughout both books Tocqueville sought to inquire whether it was possible to establish human freedom in an egalitarian society. His audience was French; he aimed “to awaken France’s conscience and continue her civic education.”

Tocqueville got elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, and always took his political career seriously. He chose his ideological place to be on the “left center” of the political spectrum; he was, however, a poor orator and quickly became an isolated figure. He soon realized that he “absolutely” lacked “the talent for extemporizing,” without realizing how damaging that was bound to be to his political aspirations. He served briefly (for five months) and relatively unsuccessfully as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Ill health, from a slowly developing tuberculosis, combined with the coming to power of Napoleon III to put an end to Tocqueville’s political life; he refused to serve under the authoritarian Empire. In his retirement he went back to his writing, and his Recollections and The Old Regime date from this final period of his internal exile.

Jardin’s biography is such a pleasure to read that it seemed almost impossible to put down. Lamberti’s Tocqueville and the Two Democracies is, by contrast, labored and requires effort to read one’s way through it; yet Lamberti’s book is in its own way almost as rewarding as Jardin’s. Lamberti is a professional sociologist in Paris, and unlike so many of his country’s intellectuals he has not disdained keeping abreast of academic developments in North America. As a matter of fact, because of the abundant interest in Tocqueville on this side of the Atlantic the French are a bit fearful that they are in danger of losing control of the Tocqueville secondary literature.

Tocqueville and the Two Democracies does make for a hard read, especially alongside Jardin’s biography, which is written without any academese. Yet I think I learned an immense amount from Lamberti. Although I found it unfortunate that he chose to isolate Democracy from Tocqueville’s other texts, he does establish (along with other commentators) that Vol. I was primarily written as a study of American society, whereas Vol. II was more an examination of democracy in general. Lamberti considers Democracy as “the greatest political work of the nineteenth century,” and emphasizes Tocqueville’s love of liberty and hatred of revolution. Notably Lamberti makes extensive use of the Tocqueville material at the Yale archives. Assuming Lamberti is correct that Democracy ranks as “among the master-works of political philosophy,” his conscientiousness about early drafts, notes, revisions, marginalia, and letters all seems warranted.

Then, two-thirds through the book, I suddenly sat upright when Lamberti quotes from Tocqueville’s published text itself:

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists of his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland.

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble paternal authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life; but, on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and from all the cares of living?

This electrifying (and famous) passage stands out in Lamberti’s book in such sharp contrast to the rest of the quotations from Tocqueville’s early drafts, etc. that despite my respect for Lamberti’s scholarly achievement the words from Democracy itself make me wonder whether it does not after all make more sense to pay fuller attention to the great work itself. I think it a tribute to Jardin’s biography that the same passage, in the midst of his well-written book, appears to flow inconspicuously with the rest of the narrative that he has constructed.

It is an old problem in historiography how one should balance the life and work of a great writer. While I would not expect anyone to better Jardin’s biography for at least another generation, Lamberti’s book is only one among many possible approaches to his texts; yet Lamberti’s discussion of Democracy will be a permanent part of the scholarly literature, and certainly combined with reading Jardin’s book helps to bring Tocqueville alive in a way which was hardly possible before.

Tocqueville stands as a great figure in the history of modern liberalism, for he fought to defend individualism without confusing it either with egoism or conformity. And as Lamberti puts it, Tocqueville accepted the principles of 1789 “but rejects the revolutionary spirit.” It still remains true for ourselves that we confront the dilemma of reconciling the contradictions Tocqueville struggled with, which is why he remains such a vividly contemporary figure.


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