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. 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 …