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The Divided Liberal

Tocqueville: A Biography

by André Jardin, translated by Lydia Davis, with Robert Hemenway
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 550 pp., $30.00

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 families: the legitimist nobility of the early nineteenth century and the liberal thinkers of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Europe. Jardin, one of the editors of the collected works and a historian of early nineteenth-century France, has spent years working through all of Tocqueville’s papers, as well as those of his friends and correspondents. Lamberti has studied Tocqueville’s writings closely against two backgrounds: the immediate political situation in which they were written and the ideas of other liberal thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In both cases the life helps to explicate the work. Together the two authors make Tocqueville look more original than ever.2

André Jardin reminds us that Tocqueville passed at first for just another reactionary nobleman. He failed his first campaign for the Chamber of Deputies in 1837 amid cries of “No more noblemen!” The Tocquevilles were not rustic squires, like their cousins the Chateaubriands. They were within hailing distance of the great nobility. An ancestor invaded England with William the Conqueror. Tocqueville’s father and grandfather both made advantageous marriages, the father to the granddaughter of the great liberal judge Lamoignon de Malesherbes. Thus Alexis combined both robe and sword in his ancestry, and came from a milieu that took to enlightened intellectual activity as naturally as to public service.

The young Alexis grew up, however, in a narrower atmosphere of fervent legitimism and commitment to the Bourbon dynasty. Malesherbes, who had come out of retirement to serve as defense counsel in Louis XVI’s trial, was guillotined in 1794, as were several of Alexis’ uncles and aunts. Alexis’ father, Comte Hervé de Tocqueville, was in prison awaiting execution when Robespierre’s fall saved him. Comte Hervé became a prefect in the Restoration administration and was elevated to the peerage by Charles X in 1828. Alexis’ cousin Louis de Kergorlay joined the attempted coup in 1832 by the Duchesse de Berry, daughter-in-law of the exiled King Charles X. Alexis remained intimate with these circles. He went over the manuscript of volume one of Democracy in America in detail with his father. He defended Kergorlay in court, and discussed his writings with him to the end of his life.

Moreover, Tocqueville could be a snob. Of the young Comte de Gobineau, whom he made his private secretary when he was foreign minister, he wrote to Kergorlay, “He’s a fine fellow…born into our class.” What kept Tocqueville, then, from being just another reactionary nobleman? He took pains to mark his separation from the nobility. He refused to use his title of Comte, though he loved the chatelain’s role at Tocqueville. He took the oath to Orleanist Louis Philippe in 1830 in his capacity as apprentice magistrate, to the scandal of most of his family (the trip with his friend Gustave de Beaumont to America was at least partly an escape from this situation), and served the Second Republic as minister of foreign affairs in 1849. He insisted upon sitting left of center in the parliamentary hemicycle. To the friend charged with obtaining a seat for him after his election in 1839, Tocqueville wrote,

The spot where you plant your behind has a primary importance…. The word “left” is the only one that has stuck in their [the electors’] minds and that is the word I wanted to attach to my name so that it would remain attached to it forever after.

In his last uncompleted manuscripts, he was still writing of the “prodigious grandeur” of 1789.

However easily contemporary conservatives and minimal-government neoliberals can mine Tocqueville for warnings against “democratic despotism” and administrative centralization, he was never a mere defender of order. “A nation that asks nothing of its government but the preservation of order is already enslaved in its heart,” he wrote in Democracy in America. “It is a slave of its prosperity, and a man may come to cast it in chains.” Even after his fright when faced with revolutionary turmoil in the June Days of 1848, so glaringly exposed in the Souvenirs,3 he despised the “red scare” tactics of the Second Empire. He discussed the possibilities of revolution almost hopefully in a letter to Beaumont on February 27, 1858, and lamented that France was too “weary and fearful of anarchy” to escape subservience to Napoleon III. Force in defense of privilege angered him even more than force against privilege; as Talleyrand would have said, it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. Despite his ostensible Catholicism, he raged at the “prodigious stupidity” of Pope Pius IX when he was trying as foreign minister in 1849 to help patch over the quarrel between the people of Rome and the furiously reactionary papal court. He couldn’t stand Guizot (though as a student he had admired his lectures) and Thiers, both of whom served as premier under Louis Philippe and became virtual symbols of his bourgeois monarchy. Tocqueville’s rejection of even the middle-class right was emotional and tactical as well as intellectual.

So one wonders why there was no apparent break between Tocqueville and his legitimist father. Jardin contents himself with describing the apparent affection between the two, and Alexis’ grief at his father’s death in 1856. Yet Comte Hervé’s death must have been in at least one way a relief for his son, who was about to publish The Old Regime and the French Revolution, a work he had not even told his father he was writing. Comte Hervé, late in life, had published narrative histories of the reigns of Louis XV and XVI,4 and Alexis had refused to assist in promoting them. What a curious relationship of emulation and rivalry seems to lie buried there!

The most revolutionary act of Alexis’ life, moreover, was his rejection of the traditional arranged “suitable match” and marriage to an English governess a few years his senior, Mary Mottley, whom he had known for several years. The union produced some friction and no children, and Alexis acknowledged some infidelities in private correspondence. There seems to have been some intellectual rapport, however: they read to each other in the evenings. André Jardin does not speculate about the deceptively calm, selectively rebellious relation between son and father, a subject that seems well worth deeper exploration. This masterful biography of the public man is sometimes reluctant to probe the private one.

Even so, it is clear that Alexis de Tocqueville transcended his heritage radically in an intellectual way without an apparent emotional break with it. As Harold Laski put it in his introduction to the 1951 French edition of Democracy in America, there was always a divorce in Tocqueville between the mind and the heart. Did he fit more easily with liberal thinkers than with his father and brothers? Lamberti shows by close reading that Tocqueville was not quite like any of them. He was too lucidly aware of the excesses of any single principle when carried to extreme, perpetually applying his own intellectual checks and balances. Among his predecessors, he was closest to Montesquieu, while rejecting Montesquieu’s geographical determinism. He shared Rousseau’s fascination with how free citizens could be formed, but rejected his belief in the indivisibility of sovereignty. He found Condorcet too materialist and too confident about progress, Benjamin Constant and Mme. de Staël too individualist. He broke with his early mentor Royer-Collard by his active role in the 1840s parliamentary opposition. He felt that John Stuart Mill understood him best, but Tocqueville differed with Mill in the merits he found in aristocratic autonomy and religion.

His lack of rapport with Guizot is a key to Tocqueville’s “new kind of Liberalism.” Tocqueville was repelled by Guizot’s confident certainty that liberty expanded with the growth of the middle class. Tocqueville was sure that liberty expanded with civic virtue, of the kind he observed in New England town meetings, for example, and that the quest for wealth was inimical to civic virtue. The middle class’s concentration on profits and private pleasures eroded the active and disinterested participation in public affairs that kept a society free. Its materialist individualism encouraged civic apathy, and was incompatible with national grandeur and artistic creativity. Tocqueville could accept self-interest as a positive social force only when suffused with public spirit, as “self-interest properly understood.” Lamberti perceptively suggests that his work is better understood as “the last great theoretical embodiment of civic humanism” than as classical liberalism. There was, moreover, a distinctly post-Napoleonic, almost Gaullian ring to Tocqueville’s disdain for “le petit pot au feu démocratique et bourgeois,” as he put it in an August 9, 1840, letter to his friend Beaumont.

Tocqueville’s contempt for the middle class could put him occasionally on the same track as Karl Marx, of whose existence he was probably not aware. Both called the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe a “joint stock company of the bourgeoisie.” Tocqueville was appalled at the “new industrial aristocracy” when he visited Manchester in 1833. He rejected the socialism just then emerging, however, as much for its “materialism” as for its threat to property. Although Tocqueville denied Locke’s view of property as a natural right, he considered the right to property indispensable to the kind of social state and mores that furthered liberty. That makes it all the more notable how little interest he took in the contemporary utopians who wanted to universalize property. As an enthusiast for grass-roots association, he could, in a “Memoir on Poverty” published in 1835, hardly avoid playing with the widespread current nostrum of self-administered worker associations. Confronted with the fury of the unemployed in the June Days of 1848, however, all Tocqueville could perceive as their motive was “greed.” Socialism in his jaundiced view was doubly incompatible with liberty: it combined the lowered horizons of middle-class materialism with the distorting effects of violence.

I have only one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity,” Tocqueville wrote to his English translator Henry Reeve on March 22, 1837. Commentators have taken him at his word. It has been common to identify liberty as Tocqueville’s lodestar, the fixed point around which turned his rejection of reaction, his resigned acquiescence in democracy, and his conditional acceptance of equality. Considering the correspondence and the career alongside the writings makes one suspect that civic virtue conceived as a willingness to act with others for the common good might better be considered Tocqueville’s fixed point.

It is clear that for Tocqueville it was not enough merely to establish good laws or good institutions. Whether laws and institutions fostered a free society depended on how they fit with a free social state and popular values (“moeurs“) “In America, free mores have made the political institutions free; in France, it is up to the free political institutions to create the mores.” The Americans had enjoyed a privileged “point of departure.” No revolution had been necessary to establish freedom there. In France, the resort to violence had poisoned the political culture. Equality having been imposed there by revolution, this unfavorable “point of departure” made it very difficult to form mores suitable for liberty. Could mores be changed? Only by education; and Tocqueville meant the practical education of daily political experience in local government and associations. These famous “intermediary bodies” were as important in Tocqueville’s way of thinking for the formation of citizens as to counterbalance centralized authority.

The primacy of civic virtue in Tocqueville’s thought makes his religious views particularly important. It is well known that Tocqueville attributed utilitarian value to religion as the moral cement allowing liberty to survive equality in America. The depth of religious feeling in Tocqueville’s intimate papers is one of the surprises of Jardin’s biography. Tocqueville was no child of the Enlightenment, whether in religion or in his skepticism about progress, his lack of interest in science or his refusal of all embracing systems. He lost his own faith at sixteen. He never seems to have lost his regret for it, however. Jardin shows the pain of his doubt, his Jansenist heritage of pessimism, austerity, and asceticism, and the importance of Pascal in his reading. He firmly refutes the legend of a deathbed conversion.

By temperament and inclination Tocqueville may well have been closer to the social catholics, among his contemporaries, than to the liberals. If, on an anachronistic reading, Tocqueville was a “latent” sociologist,5 who evoked the web of relationships among laws, social states, and mores, he was also a paternalist pedagogue, eager to preserve the best of aristocratic civic virtue in the inevitable transition to democracy. Tocqueville transcended his milieu most remarkably, however, in understanding that the attempt to save aristocracy by force would destroy precisely what was admirable in aristocracy. He wanted to try to reproduce those same qualities in the inevitable new social state. That required conscious effort, however. Nothing was determined or inevitable about the form the coming egalitarian society would take. Societies could shape either liberty or despotism for themselves in the democratic era. It is thus pointless to ask whether or not Tocqueville was a democrat. Tocqueville was, both by family tradition and by political logic, a social pedagogue of paternalist leanings who wanted to reproduce within the coming democratic society the civic and artistic excellence heretofore nurtured by aristocratic society.

Did Tocqueville’s thought evolve, since in his life he experienced many turns and reverses? The American and the French writings have often been dealt with separately, and the younger Tocqueville is commonly seen as more optimistic than the older. Lamberti treats all Tocqueville’s writings as a unit, finding at least implicit references to both France and the United States—and to England—throughout the work. Whereas others have found breaks in Tocqueville’s social fright in 1848 or Napoleon III’s coup in 1851, Lamberti finds a fundamental shift during the writing of the second volume of Democracy in America, in the late 1830s, coincident with Tocqueville’s entry into politics, Thereafter his emphasis was less on the special history of the American experiment and more on the multiple potential routes to despotism, democratic as well as military or revolutionary. Throughout, however, “all of Tocqueville’s work is a meditation on the civic spirit.” Tocqueville ended, as he began, concentrating his fire on the right. Living within earshot of the imperial kennels at Compiègne, he grumbled to Beaumont in a letter of November 14, 1854, that Napoleon III’s dogs were the only assembly in France that could make itself heard.

Tocqueville was thus half-liberated from his two families, in a never resolved tension that helps to account for the endlessly fascinating complexity of his work. Some privileged subjects, therefore, remained forever exempt from his formidable curiosity. He never seems to have wondered whether the very structures of the Catholic Church, for example, tended to promote or to limit liberty. He prized the Church uncritically as one of the “intermediary bodies.” Indeed, like many another French tourist, he found in American Protestantism both an admirable source of civic virtue and a dangerous source of mass conformity. He thought that the expansion of Catholicism that he witnessed in the 1830s was a positive sign for liberty in America—and not because he envisaged religious pluralism, for he seems to have expected that Catholicism would become the predominant religion in America.

Another surprise is Tocqueville’s nationalism. His famous attacks on the July Monarchy for giving in to the British in the Near East, Tahiti, and Oregon were not isolated incidents. This pale, tubercular intellectual saw virtues in war as a school of character. He supported French colonial enterprise, in particular, reserving his critical acumen mostly for the colonies of others. After a few days on the Michigan frontier and in Quebec in 1831 he had no trouble perceiving the French Canadians as a “conquered” people, and he had an immediate and sophisticated grasp of the culturally deprived situation of the Indians and mixed-race children of French trappers on the American frontier. Race relations inspired his most negative statements about America. That slavery produced moral degradation among both master and slave in the South was to be expected, but he was surprised by the degree of racial animosity and exclusion he encountered in the North. He took a lively interest in Algeria, however (he visited it twice), and saw French settlement there as a work of civilization.

Indeed, with his friend Beaumont, the companion of his American voyage, he took serious steps in the 1850s to acquire land in Algeria. Ever reluctant to speculate, Jardin doesn’t wonder whether his purpose was to recoup his modest fortune after he had lost money in a newspaper venture, to fight the tuberculosis that was soon to kill him at fifty-four, or to find a substitute for the political career that was ended by Napoleon III. At any rate, it is amusing to imagine Alexis de Tocqueville as a pied noir. One likes to think that his lifelong capacity for outrage at the use of force to preserve privilege would soon have come into play, and that he would have felt some of the same anger at the plight of the Muslims in the Plain of Mitidja that he had felt at the plight of Indians in Michigan in 1831. But it is never certain with this endlessly ambivalent man whether the sociologist, the chatelain, or the moralist would have gotten the upper hand.

  1. 1

    Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of the Mass Era.

  2. 2

    Roger Boesche in The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville (Cornell University Press, 1987) arrives at a similar conclusion by comparing Tocqueville somewhat less systematically to the novelists and journalists of his generation.

  3. 3

    L.E. Shiner in The Secret Mirror: Literary Form and History in Tocqueville’s Recollections (Cornell University Press, 1988) uses textual analysis to demonstrate once again Tocqueville’s silences about social issues and acceptance of repression in 1848.

  4. 4

    Excerpts of the history of Louis XVI are now available in English, along with the draft of Alexis’s unpublished sequel to The Old Regime, translated and explicated by Robert R. Palmer, The Two Tocquevilles: Father and Son (Princeton University Press, 1987).

  5. 5

    Pierre Birnbaum, Sociologie de Tocqueville (Paris, 1970), p. 6.

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