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Visions of Politics


Sheldon Wolin’s Tocqueville Between Two Worlds has been many years in gestation. It is long, densely written, and difficult. It rests on an immense range of reading in Tocqueville and his commentators; and it tackles large subjects. The largest is nothing less than whether freedom is possible in the modern world. The book is an extended dialogue between Wolin and Tocqueville, but it is just as obviously an extended dialogue between Wolin and himself. It raises uncomfortable questions—about the authority of intellectuals to pronounce on political issues, about the compatibility of high culture and democratic equality, about the possibility of securing disinterested political leadership in the absence of an aristocratic caste—and it provides no answers. Indeed, it ends with the disgusted and despairing observation that in contemporary America, “democracy is perpetuated as philanthropic gesture, contemptuously institutionalized as welfare, and denigrated as populism.”

Tocqueville is an apt partner for Wolin’s enterprise. Almost two centuries after it was written, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America exerts an extraordinary grip on the American imagination.1 Tocqueville is so frequently invoked in contemporary political arguments that it is hard to appreciate how extraordinary his authority is. But think of the circumstances of the composition of Democracy in America and the nature of its author. When he embarked on his visit to the United States—he came for a bare nine months in 1831–1832—Tocqueville was twenty-five; when the first volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, he was no older than many graduate students are today. Nor was he likely to be a sympathetic observer of Jacksonian America. He was an aristocrat, and deeply conscious of it.

Charles-Alexis Clerel de Tocqueville was born in 1805, the youngest of his father’s three sons. His maternal great-grandfather, M. de Malesherbes, had perished on the guillotine during the Terror of 1794. Only the fall of Robespierre saved the life of his father, Hervé. After the final defeat of Napoleon and the Bourbon restoration, Comte Hervé became an ultra-royalist prefect in various départements, and the young Alexis grew up in a climate of devotion to the Bourbon monarchy and an intense Catholic spirituality.

Comte Hervé was a thoughtful politician and administrator who exemplified both the aristocratic ideals to which his son remained devoted and the difficulty of living up to them in nineteenth-century France. Hervé wanted to serve his king and his nation; he did not want to serve the bourgeois time-servers who made up the king’s government. When the Revolution of 1830 sent the Bourbon Charles X into exile and put the Orléanist Louis-Philippe on the throne, Hervé de Tocqueville retired from politics. He died at the age of eighty-three in 1857, just two years before his son.

The revolution that sent Hervé into retirement sent Alexis to the United States. In 1827, he became an unpaid juge auditeur at Versailles, a junior magistrate’s position that might be an apprenticeship for higher judicial office or a staging post for a parliamentary career. When Louis-Philippe became king, Tocqueville had to decide whether to sacrifice his future or grit his teeth and swear allegiance to Louis-Philippe. He took the oath, but reluctantly. “I have at last sworn the oath. My conscience does not reproach me, but I am still deeply wounded and I will count this day among the most unhappy of my life….”2 The result was that he was trusted neither by the regime nor by his more intransigent friends and relatives who thought it an act of treason.

It was a good time to go on a long journey. When he returned, French politics might have settled down and his future be easier to plan; personal enmities would have had time to cool. But the idea of exploring the United States had been in his mind for some time. The United States was an unequivocal republican success, but in France, the attempt to establish a republican government after 1789 had collapsed in bloodshed and the Terror. Order had been restored under an emperor. America was a reproach to the British, but not to French monarchists: the murdered Louis XVI had helped bring the American republic to birth. But, America certainly raised the question of how Americans had achieved what the French could not.

Of course, this was not what Tocqueville and his lifelong friend and fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont proposed when they asked for leave to visit the United States. As magistrates, Beaumont and Tocqueville were genuinely interested in the prisons of more enlightened and better-organized countries. In October 1830, Beaumont put it to his superiors that although Britain and Switzerland were building model prisons, it was in the United States that true enlightenment was found. Would it not be a good idea if he and Tocqueville, at their own expense, went to the United States to inspect the prison regime? In February 1831, they received eighteen months’ leave of absence. On May 11 they disembarked in New York, and left again on February 20, 1832.

Tocqueville claimed that he went to the United States without intending to write a book. Certainly, the two volumes of Democracy in America were not what one might expect from an aristocratic young Frenchman. By the 1830s there was a well-established genre of travel writing in which Europeans mocked Americans for their uncouthness and naiveté. Mrs. Trollope—the novelist’s mother—was a famous offender.3 In private, Tocqueville was sometimes unkind about the conversation and manners of his hosts; on the page, he celebrated the success of Americans in creating and sustaining a democratic republic, praised their morals and religion, and left his French readers in no doubt that while much of this American success was fortuitous, most was not.

The darker, more abstract, and less popular second volume of Democracy in America spelled out the ways in which egalitarian societies might face new dangers and new forms of tyranny, as well as ways in which they might be less imaginative, less interesting, and intellectually less adventurous societies than their aristocratic predecessors. In writing the two volumes, Tocqueville invented modern political sociology. He showed his successors how to analyze society with as sharp an eye for conflict as Marx’s, but without Marx’s fatal urge to reduce everything to the conflict of capital and labor. Without erecting vast theoretical schemes, he showed how to take conflicts of values as seriously as conflicts of interest, and how to take the need for well-designed political institutions seriously without deceiving ourselves about how much they could achieve.

Who was Democracy in America written for? Mainly for the French, who had already shown a propensity to sacrifice their liberty to a passion for equality—and would do so again in 1848 and 1851. John Stuart Mill borrowed the message for Victorian England—but for the sake of cultural rather than political liberty. Americans have plundered it for their own purposes ever since. It has sustained flattering images of America as the land of pluralism, localism, self-help, and an enthusiasm for voluntary associations; it has also encouraged anxiety whether all those institutional and individual characteristics are on the wane, as well as the fear that Americans have become privatized consumers incapable of imagining an existence beyond the office and the shopping mall, and incapable of framing a political idea not endorsed by public opinion. From this it is a small step to imagine a version of the “soft” despotism feared by Tocqueville, in which manipulative elites use a mixture of economic blandishments and military adventures to distract and stupefy a mass public.

Wolin’s own anxieties about the American polity are in this vein. Freedom has vanished, as Tocqueville feared, and we now have antidemocracy. Wolin believes that “the political” has been subverted by the triumph of the economic:

Democracy is touted not as self-government by an involved citizenry but as economic opportunity. Opportunity serves as the means of implicating the populace in antidemocracy, in a politico-economic system characterized by the dominating power of hierarchical organizations, widening class differentials, and a society where the hereditary element is confined to successive generations of the defenseless poor.

As for the author of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wanted two things for himself as well as his country: he hoped for literary fame for its own sake, and he hoped to translate that eminence into a political career. Before Democracy in America was finished, the two young magistrates’ report on American prison policy4 secured the Montyon Prize for its authors—most of the writing being Beaumont’s—but by this time Tocqueville had resigned from his magistrate’s position and embarked on an extended tour of England and Ireland.

Democracy in America Volume One was a great success; it, too, secured the Montyon Prize, and in December 1841, Tocqueville was elected to the Académie Française. Its publication in January 1835 also made his name in the right political circles; but it took elaborate maneuvering and two attempts before he secured election in 1839 as deputy for Valognes in his native Normandy. Among the problems facing the new deputy, the first was the need to make his political position clear by finding the right seat in the semicircular chamber. Writing to a colleague about the attitude of his electorate, he said: “In the eyes of these people, the spot where you plant your behind has a primary importance…. Isn’t there some hole at the very top of the left center or on the edge of the left on that side where we could ensconce ourselves?”5

For the last nine years of the reign of Louis-Philippe, Tocqueville was a member of the moderate opposition, steering a tactful course between legitimism and outright republicanism. He spoke often on prison reform and on education. Throughout the 1840s, he also took a particular interest in foreign affairs, in which he was an unabashed French imperialist. Grandeur meant much to him, and it is a small irony of the history of ideas that John Stuart Mill, who earned his living managing the affairs of India, had to tread very delicately when urging on his friend the need for great nations to conciliate one another rather than get into fights. The Tocqueville who celebrated the savage and brutal conquest of Algeria is a less obvious recruit for liberalism than the Tocqueville who celebrated the New England township.

The Revolution of 1848 did not at once drive Tocqueville out of politics. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in April, and helped to draft the new constitution and explain it to the Assembly. He moved sharply to the right when the Parisian workers launched the insurrection of the June Days; but when the new Legislative Assembly was elected in May 1849, he was supported by all shades of opinion among his Norman voters. For five months, he was in government, as foreign minister. It was the very brief peak of his political career; after five months, he was dismissed. A year later Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état put an end to the Second Republic, and to Tocqueville’s public life.

  1. 1

    E.g., Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

  2. 2

    Letter to Mary Mottley, quoted by André Jardin, Tocqueville (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), p. 89.

  3. 3

    Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London: Whittaker, Treacher, 1832); it must in fairness be said that Mark Twain thought very well of the book as an unsparing but truthful account of American life.

  4. 4

    Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (1832).

  5. 5

    Letter to Corcelle, quoted in Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 298.

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