The appearance in Paris of the first authoritative biography (by André Jardin) and the first French doctorat d’état (by Jean-Claude Lamberti) devoted to Alexis de Tocqueville 125 years after their subject’s death points to two paradoxes: that they come so late and that so little of the previous Tocqueville scholarship has been French. There has been no shortage of material. Tocqueville, as Jardin shows us, was keenly conscious of his place in posterity. His papers at the chateau de Tocqueville fill some 110 cartons; they are supplemented by the travel diaries and drafts of Democracy in America gathered at Yale for the preparation of George W. Pierson’s classic Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (1938). The only previous French biography was the work of a conservative essayist, Antoine Rédier (1925). Serious European scholarship on Tocqueville was begun by the English-based German refugee J.-P. Mayer, who wrote a brief but perceptive biography in 1939,1 and who began publishing the collected works in 1951 under the direction of Raymond Aron, now nearly complete at volume eighteen.
The French discovery of Tocqueville since then would be worth a small book in itself. (Rediscovery, more accurately, for the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835 made him famous at thirty. He was so eminent in 1857 that the Bibliothèque Nationale was willing to furnish him a list of French Revolutionary pamphlets, and to forward to him in Normandy all the titles he checked, a service that any current user of that august house will find nothing short of miraculous.) More recently, until after the 1960s, it was difficult to find much space in French intellectual life for a demanding political thinker who saw evil in both revolution and despotism, and indeed warned that one fed upon the other.
For many French opponents of revolution, Tocqueville was too critical of Louis XVI, Napoleon, and the clergy, and too enthusiastic (at least in the early writings) about the civic virtue of an egalitarian society such as that of New England, a virtue achieved by practice rather than by violence. For many French opponents of despotism, on the other hand, he was too hostile to the revolutionary enterprise, too positive about religion, too empiricist and too refractory to general theory, and too skeptical about human progress. A space has been opened up for Tocqueville in France—as it was simultaneously for his leading modern French disciple, Raymond Aron—by the loosened grip of two faiths: conservative Catholicism and the Revolution. Oddly enough, it is the bicentennial of the Great Revolution of 1789 that reveals how dramatically it has lost the grip it used to hold on French political culture, as a pervasive model of authentic social change and as France’s main unfinished business. The French Revolution is entering the museum this year (as integral Catholicism had already done), and Tocqueville is coming out of it.
The two indispensable books under review allow us to see Tocqueville more clearly than ever before in relation to his two…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.