Alexis de Tocqueville: Selected Letters on Politics and Society
Tocqueville is best known as the author of three works, Democracy in America, the Recollections, and the Ancien Régime, although his complete works (of which publication is still unfinished) run to some thirty volumes.1 In one sense, it is neither unfair nor absurd that Tocqueville’s lasting reputation rests on these three works, since they represent the three high points of his life—when he was a young lawyer exploring the consequences of democracy in the United States, a politician grappling with the 1848 revolution, and finally a historian returning to his first intellectual interest, the French Revolution.
Although his book on the Revolution went no further than his study of its origins in the Ancien Régime, this division of his life into periods has the advantage of simplicity; but it isn’t particularly easy to connect the three different phases of Tocqueville’s life, and they are usually grouped together loosely, and as a last resort, when he is described as a great “liberal” thinker. Insofar as he dealt continually with the same questions of liberty, equality, democracy, and revolution from the beginning of his career, Tocqueville’s thought had considerable unity to it; but it is nonetheless true that his approach to these questions underwent considerable development from Democracy in America to the Ancien Régime, especially under the impact of the February revolution of 1848 and Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851.
Fortunately, like many of his contemporaries, Tocqueville wrote a great many letters throughout his life. His correspondence with friends already fills eleven of the published volumes of the complete works, and these have major omissions. Most of the letters written to his English and American friends have been unavailable in English;2 so have those dealing with his local parliamentary constituency in the Cotentin in Normandy, and his letters to his wife, his father and brothers. It was therefore an excellent idea of James Toupin and Roger Boesche to translate and publish a substantial selection of Tocqueville’s correspondence, 104 letters in all, from September 1823 (when Tocqueville was eighteen) to March 1859, when he wrote his last letter to Gustave de Beaumont, shortly before his death. The English-reading public now has available an epistolary view of all of Tocqueville’s adult life, and will be able to know more about a writer who, notwithstanding his fame—or perhaps because of it—especially in the United States, remains elusive.
As he said himself, Tocqueville was a democrat by intellect, but an aristocrat at heart. This theorist of modern equality belongs entirely (except for his marriage to an Englishwoman, Mary Mottley, deemed by his circle of friends to be a mismatch) to the old order; his way of life can serve as an example of the way customs live on beyond the ideas that contradict them. For part of each year he stayed at his château of Tocqueville, in the north of the Cotentin…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.