Tocqueville: The Flaws of Genius

Hugh Brogan has taken almost forty-five years to write Alexis de Tocqueville. He began work as a graduate student and finished the book in retirement. The cause was not a bad case of writer’s block, but something just as familiar to biographers. The Tocqueville family archives were for many years closed to everyone except the editors of Tocqueville’s Oeuvres complètes; so although Brogan was elected to a research fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1963, with the intention of writing the book we now have, his research was blocked. In 1972, he published a useful short study ; but only in 2000 could he finally engage with the family papers now housed in the archives of the département of the Manche.

The wait has been worth it. The book is full of insights into Tocqueville the sociologist, historian, social prophet, and liberal politician, but it is as a biography that it triumphs. Brogan writes of Tocqueville as “one of my oldest and dearest friends (I have known him for nearly fifty years).” If anyone wants to criticize Tocqueville, they should do it out of Brogan’s hearing. He, on the other hand, has the freedom to criticize that comes with real intimacy, and he uses it unsparingly. Indeed, the book reads like the record not so much of a friendship but a marriage—written with the mixture of deep affection and acute exasperation that successful marriages generate if they last long enough.

Nor is the metaphor out of place. Tocqueville’s marriage to Marie, or Mary, Mottley—a middle-class Englishwoman some five years older than he—was the central fact of his adult life; their passionate, often angry, sexually intense relationship puzzled his friends and relatives, not least his conventionally upper-class sisters-in-law. To make this unlikely marriage, Tocqueville spurned the alliances open to an attractive young aristocrat in 1830s France; it was the more surprising, as Brogan often reminds us, because Tocqueville was deeply conscious of his aristocratic inheritance and almost pathologically incapable of getting on familiar terms with the middle-class politicians on whom political success depended. Tocqueville was not a middle-class professor of sociology ahead of his time; he was an ill-at-ease aristocrat in early-nineteenth-century France. Everything about his career reflects the fact.

Tocqueville is venerated by almost all his commentators. They skate over the shortcomings of Democracy in America, avert their eyes from Tocqueville’s defense of the French conquest of North Africa, ask few questions about his not very successful political career, and give his L’Ancien Régime et la révolution an easy ride because it offers insights into the relationships between class, religion, and politics that Marxist commentators struggle with. He is such a beguiling writer that it is easy to suppress our critical faculties, forgive his lapses of analysis, and succumb. Indeed, we succumb while knowing we should not. Tocqueville’s delicacy of touch undermines criticism; he is the least insistent, but the most seductive, of the nineteenth-century prophetic writers …

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