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 peninsula. He wrote there, mostly in the mornings, and spent the rest of the day as a gentleman-farmer, overseeing his workers and the harvests.
Tocqueville’s other fixed point was Paris, to which he was drawn by his literary career, his political activities, and the web of family and social relations. The main difference between his life and that of an eighteenth-century aristocrat was the disappearance of the court at Versailles, which was sucked into the all-consuming political power of the city. Professionally, Tocqueville began life as a lawyer, but the July revolution of 1830, in which Charles X was displaced by Louis Philippe, led him to return to the traditional occupations of his caste: living off the income of his estates, writing, participating in public affairs. In this again Tocqueville and many of the other “notables,” the heirs of the ancien régime, closely resembled the eighteenth-century aristocrats from whom they descended. The best of them considered that they had inherited intellectual and political interests along with the family furniture.
Writing letters was also a part of their tradition. How could one live for long periods in the country without keeping in touch with friends, with news, with ideas? Almost all of Tocqueville’s correspondents, relatives apart, were “notables” like himself; most of them were members of the nobility, and therefore living in their châteaux, often away from Paris. A network of interlocutors was formed, which included also Tocqueville’s English friends and acquaintances, notably Henry Reeve (the translator of Democracy in America), John Stuart Mill, and Nassau Senior. Tocqueville’s connection with the Anglo-Saxon countries to the exclusion of all others is central to his thought. His mind never ceased reflecting on France, England, and America, but never found any other point of rest, not even in Germany.
At the center of the French network were Tocqueville’s two closest friends: Louis de Kergorlay and Gustave de Beaumont. Kergorlay was his school friend at the lycée in Metz and his neighbor in the Normandy countryside. Kergorlay had the same aristocratic background. After Charles X was deposed in 1830, he became a passionate legitimist, renounced his military career, and went into a kind of internal exile. While he lacked Tocqueville’s intellectual energy and imagination, he had no difficulty in engaging the questions that preoccupied Tocqueville, since they were the questions that affected his own life. Tocqueville spoke more freely to him than to anyone else of his plans and writing. It was to Kergorlay that he wrote the fullest letter on the meaning of his American travels, and described the successive stages of what eventually became The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.
His second close friend was Gustave de Beaumont, who accompanied Tocqueville on his American journey and was his colleague on the bench at the Versailles law court between 1827 and 1830. Beaumont also belonged to the old nobility and was related to LaFayette by marriage. He was the author of the report on American penal institutions that the two friends submitted to the French authorities on their return; and he also wrote a book based on his experiences—Mary, or Slavery in the United States, a semifictional, semidocumentary denunciation of the new republic’s infidelity to its own principles.
After being elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839 at almost the same time as Tocqueville, Beaumont remained his alter ego (apart from a brief period of cooler relations in 1844), collaborating with him on matters of penal reform, colonial policy, and voting rights up to 1848. Then, like Tocqueville, he became a member of both assemblies of the Second Republic; he was appointed ambassador to Vienna in 1849 when Tocqueville was foreign minister, and was arrested with Tocqueville before dawn on December 2, 1851, the day of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état. Both men then withdrew entirely from politics.
In 1865, six years after Tocqueville’s death, Beaumont published the first (incomplete but nonetheless useful) edition of his friend’s works. He was, we can now see, an ideal correspondent—close to Tocqueville’s practical, political, and intellectual interests for more than forty years and sufficiently perceptive to see and accept (though it smarted a little) his friend’s intellectual superiority.
Kergorlay and Beaumont are representatives of the social milieu revealed in this correspondence: the world of the nobility and the upper bourgeoisie, where virtually everyone had enough leisure to think, but where no one was really rich. It was a world held together by a taste for intellectual life, by an interest in philosophy, literature, and history, and overshadowed by the great question of the period—the French Revolution. Nearly all of Tocqueville’s correspondents were born around the turn of the century. Whether they were men of letters like Jean-Jacques Ampère and Arthur de Gobineau, or politicians like Claude-François de Corcelle and Pierre Freslon, or close relatives like his own brothers, their letters reveal to the modern reader an aspect of the Romantic generation that is little known because it was so little inclined to strong declarations of faith. Nonetheless it was a milieu in which reflections on central problems of an entire generation were elaborated with the greatest depth: the problems, that is, of the meaning of history, democracy, liberty.
Roger Boesche’s selection of Tocqueville’s letters falls into six main chronological sections: his youth, up to and including the American journey; the writing of Democracy on his return and then his election to Parliament in 1839; his political activity as a July Monarchy deputy from 1839 to 1847; the events between the 1848 revolution and the 1851 coup d’état; the work on the Ancien Régime between 1852 and its publication in 1856; and the final years from 1856 to 1859. The point of the last section is not altogether obvious, since the appearance of the Ancien Régime, intended as the first volume of the study of the French Revolution, caused no change in Tocqueville’s habits or activities. But with that exception, the sections of this book reflect the main phases of Tocqueville’s life.
As for the choice of letters, it is inevitably arbitrary: how can one make a one-volume selection from some fifteen volumes without regrettable omissions? I miss, for example, the long letter from the young Tocqueville to Beaumont on English history (October 5, 1828). Admittedly this is a rather boring composition, but it is enormously valuable, since it shows that at this time (when he was twenty-three) the central contrast that preoccupied him was still between France and England, not between France and America. The letter makes it clear, moreover, that his thoughts still centered on Guizot, the political theorist and politician whose lectures he had attended the same year. A prominent member of the amorphous group of constitutional royalists called “Doctrinaires,” Guizot impressed Tocqueville when he opposed Charles X. By 1841, when Guizot had become powerful under Louis Philippe, Tocqueville could write to his old mentor Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard,
To want to form a government or an opposition apart from M. Thiers and M. Guizot seems to me an impossibility…. Both are fundamentally antipathetical to my way of feeling and thinking. I despise them.
On an entirely different subject, I was sorry not to find two of the rare letters in which Tocqueville talks about himself, for he was a man not often given to sharing confidences and even less disposed to confessions. The first of these, written on September 27, 1843, to Kergorlay, explains at length the author’s tempestuous sexual temperament, recounts the marital infidelities that it caused, as well as the regrets, and guilt, and his inability to do anything to change it. Tocqueville has a Tolstoyan side that is not generally known.
The second letter, to which I shall return, was written toward the end of Tocqueville’s life on February 26, 1857, to Mme. Swetchine, and it is the most extraordinary confession of his religious life he ever wrote. But however much one could go on mentioning regrettable omissions, the importance of the hundred or so letters collected here would in no way be diminished, for these are among the most interesting, the most significant, and the most beautiful he wrote.
Take, for example, the letters Tocqueville wrote about his American journey while he was drafting the two volumes of Democracy between 1831 and 1840 (when the second volume appeared). They demonstrate two things: first, that when Tocqueville, as a young man of twenty-six, went to the United States in the spring of 1831 he had already formed his own hypotheses for comparing the French Revolution and the American Republic, taking the concept of democracy as the central issue to be examined. Then, after his visit of nine months or so, it took him eight years of constant work to turn these hypotheses into analytical concepts, and to give them a unified form.
He admitted his real reason for going to America in a letter to Kergorlay in January 1835, just before the first volume was published. After repeating that the social democratic state can be the vehicle either of liberty or of the worst kind of tyranny to have appeared on earth, he goes on to say: “Nearly ten years ago I was already thinking about part of the things I have just now set forth. I was in America only to become clear on this point. The penitentiary system was a pretext….”
This surprising statement is confirmed by the first letters he wrote to his friends upon arrival in America. As early as June 1831, writing to Ernest de Chabrol, a former colleague at Versailles, he describes the paradox of a republic founded not on virtue like the republics of the ancient world, but on the private interest of each citizen. He had gone to the United States, he makes it clear, to find a practical solution to the classical dilemma of political philosophy—how to avoid tyranny—that had been explored by Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant. A little later, on June 29, Tocqueville wrote Kergorlay a long and fascinating letter on how American customs, religious beliefs, and laws all converge. He was convinced he wrote, that civil equality, which he believed to be the inevitable result of democracy, would lead either to an absolutist government or to a republic. The experience of seeing American democracy led him to reflect on his own intellectual point of departure, namely the failure of the mixed government of the Restoration in France:
Applying these ideas to France. I cannot keep from thinking that the charter of Louis XVIII was necessarily a temporary creation; it had introduced aristocratic principles into the political laws and left in the civil laws such an active democratic principle that it was bound to destroy rather quickly the bases of the edifice it had raised. Charles X’s faults undoubtedly greatly accelerated the movement, but we were proceeding along without him.
Tocqueville’s letters not only make clear why he traveled to America when the attention of most French liberals remained fixed on England. They also allow the reader to follow the stages of Tocqueville’s thoughts through the long years of writing Democracy in America. 3 Here his relations with John Stuart Mill are particularly revealing. Mill was enthusiastic about the first volume when it appeared in 1835, and asked Tocqueville to write for the new London Review. They met and wrote each other often during Tocqueville’s second visit to England, in the spring of 1835. Tocqueville’s letter to Mill in June is one of the most celebrated declarations of democratic faith ever written:
I love liberty by taste, equality by instinct and reason. These two passions, which so many pretend to have, I am convinced that I really feel in myself, and that I am prepared to make great sacrifices for them.
He goes on to explain that true democracy is not government by a minority in the name of the people (in the French manner), but depends on the willingness to allow all citizens to participate in government:
I am myself a democrat in this sense. To lead modern societies by degress to this point seems to me to be the only way to save them from barbarism or slavery…. You know that I am not exaggerating the final result of the great Democratic Revolution that is taking place at this moment in the world; I do not regard it in the same light as the Israelites saw the Promised Land. But, on the whole, I believe it to be useful and necessary, and I work toward it resolutely, without hesitation, without enthusiasm and, I hope, without weakness.
While drafting the second volume of Democracy, beginning in 1835, Tocqueville tried to find the precise difference between democracy of the American type, to which he now gave his reasoned support, and French revolutionary democracy, which he viewed as harmful. He was reconsidering in his own way the theme of democracy and revolution he had taken over from the Doctrinaires, most directly from Royer-Collard, the oracle of French political philosophy during the Restoration, and the man who, of all the early Doctrinaires, represented for Tocqueville the attempt to find a moderate, pragmatic compromise between monarchy and republican aspirations.
One has only to read the letters Tocqueville wrote Royer-Collard between 1836 and 1838 (two of which are published in this volume, one from August 1836, the other from the following August) to judge how closely his thoughts were linked to those of the older man; the tone of these letters is also markedly different from, and more formal than, the tone of letters to friends. Tocqueville wrote to Royer-Collard almost as to a spiritual father. He consulted him on everything that mattered to him during those years—on what he should read, on the individualism of the French, on the future of the July Monarchy. Partly because of Royer-Collard, the second volume of Democracy in America, published in 1840, differs from the first in its careful attention to democracy in France. Tocqueville returns to questions confronting the preceding generation of French thinkers, but his analysis is enriched by constant comparison to America.
The events of 1848 deeply influenced Tocqueville’s intellectual development, coloring his views on modern democracy with a darker pessimism. True, a pessimistic strain is already perceptible in the last chapters of volume two of Democracy in America, where Tocqueville analyzed the hidden connections between democracy and despotism. But it is more strongly stated in the Recollections, written in 1850, particularly in Tocqueville’s account of the February revolution of 1848 and its sequel. This aspect of Tocqueville’s thought raises the question of whether he was consistent in his ideas, or whether he veered back and forth between contradictory views. His correspondence displays the problem but does not resolve it.
Tocqueville hated the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe and considered it to be the unmitigated reign of bourgeois interests. He reproached the regime not only for the way it exercised power, but more especially for its ideology, for its reliance on material considerations alone as the basis of its legitimacy. In this respect he is close to Marx in opposing the July Monarchy above all else for its domination by a new industrial aristocracy, whose main appeal was greed and the advancement of its private fortunes. The parliamentary member of Valognes remained faithful to the author of Democracy in America: if it is to last, he wrote, a modern society must be based on equality, but equality must act as a moral cement and be seen as a social virtue, or else society will disintegrate into the private interest.
That is why the fall of the regime of Louis Philippe did not surprise Tocqueville. He had more or less predicted it in a famous speech of January 1848. Far from being shocked by the collapse of the government, he was rather pleased, even though it recommenced the cycle of revolutions in French history. On April 22, 1848, at the time of the election of the Constituent Assembly, which was to define the new institutions of the republic, Tocqueville wrote to Beaumont that the future was dark. Nonetheless, he added:
I breathe more easily feeling myself outside the atmosphere of these small and miserable parties among which we have lived for ten years; I breathe more easily feeling myself no longer enchained by the ties of this kind of ministerial trinity that has been the divinity of these last eighteen years. We will assuredly see worse, but at least we will not see this again and that itself is something. The Thiers, Molé, and Guizot dynasty is overthrown, thank God, with the royal dynasty.
However, “worse” was indeed close at hand. It came in the revolutionary events of June 1848, during the three days when the National Guard of the new republic violently crushed the Parisian workers. One month after the letter to Beaumont, Tocqueville wrote to his electoral agent Clamorgan, who had stayed in Normandy, that what was at stake in this “most terrible civil war” was nothing less than “property, family and civilization.”
That was a very common view at the time among the governing classes, but what is striking is that it was now shared equally by Tocqueville and the very same three adversaries he had named in his letter, Thiers, Molé, and Guizot. It is a view therefore difficult to reconcile with the analyses Tocqueville made in Democracy. Where is the Tocqueville who believes that progress toward equality was the inexorable and generally wholesome direction in which all modern societies were evolving? Where is the Tocqueville who in 1835 wrote to John Stuart Mill that he believed that the “great democratic Revolution now taking place in the world” was “useful and necessary”? Or should we conclude that the June uprising for Tocqueville belonged to a different category of events from the French Revolution and what followed it? But that interpretation conflicts with a famous phrase about the 1848 revolution in his Memoirs: “Then the Revolution began anew, for it is always the same revolution….”
Tocqueville’s reaction to the revolution of 1848 raises a question about his attitudes toward the socialist doctrines that were swiftly emerging in public life during the July Monarchy and had much influence on the revolutionary leadership of the June days. Tocqueville unquestionably saw in these doctrines an extension of the egalitarian ideas typical of a democratic civilization; but he also saw, on the other hand, that the movement toward socialism owed more to the revolutionary than to the democratic heritage, and to French rather than to American social traditions. These fundamental distinctions, which underlie the second volume of Democracy, allowed Tocqueville to diagnose the symptoms of 1848 as revealing the permanence of the French tradition, and thus to see a resurgence of the 1793 terror in the June days.
In some of his writing on the events of 1848, moreover, Tocqueville saw the development of socialist ideas as a new and particular form of evil that had been unknown in the French Revolution even during its Jacobin period. In his speech to the Constituent Assembly of September 12, 1848, on the right to work, he praised the French Revolution for not having interfered with private property. Unlike the socialism of 1848, which threatened private property, he pointed out, the 1789 revolution had extended private ownership. The first Revolution was an epic giving full expression to great spiritual passions; the most recent one was an appeal to the baser kinds of desire. That was of course a way of saying not only that liberty must have a moral justification, but that the taste for liberty also rests on private property—a position that brought Tocqueville close to the Lockean tradition of liberalism, which he otherwise disliked. The letters of 1848 only illustrate his ambivalence; they do not resolve it.
Some of Tocqueville’s most moving letters were written to a woman. They are not love letters, since Tocqueville—unlike so many other nineteenth-century writers—kept his sentimental life out of his work. They are the letters of an aging man confiding in a great lady of society, Mme. Swetchine, who is close to death. Tocqueville wrote to no one else in this way. Mme. Swetchine was born into the Russian aristocracy at the end of the eighteenth century. She was a refined and cultivated woman who read all the main European languages, and combined an interest in mystical experience with a taste for criticism and analysis. She settled in France in 1816 after having converted to Roman Catholicism, and remained a person of influence in the French Church for more than forty years. Tocqueville came to know her late in life, in circumstances that are not fully known, probably through his friends, Falloux and Corcelle, who were close to her. Tocqueville’s correspondence with Mme. Swetchine began only in 1855 (she died soon after, in 1857), but the letters were frequent and full. Boesche includes three finely written letters to her from Tocqueville, but he leaves out the most interesting of all, an extraordinary letter written on February 26, 1857—so remarkable a text, indeed, that Tocqueville’s widow asked Falloux and Beaumont, the first editors of his correspondence, to return it so that she could destroy it. Fortunately Mme. de Beaumont, unknown to her husband, made a copy of it, which explains how Antoine Rédier came to publish it in full, in 1925, in his book Comme disait M. de Tocqueville.
What we find in this letter is a confession in the religious sense, made to Mme. Swetchine as if she were the director of his conscience. Tocqueville writes to her in a tone of loving respect (which makes his wife’s posthumous jealousy quite understandable) about aspects of himself which he had probably never spoken of to anyone else. He repeatedly talks of the underlying melancholy and dissatisfaction with himself that he had always felt, and that was constantly fed, he confesses, by his insatiable desire for literary fame. Like many other Romantic writers, Tocqueville saw himself as a failed Chateaubriand. But he was too clearheaded not to grasp that the desire for fame, like the desire for democracy, can never be satisfied.
Though he doesn’t directly quote Pascal, one of his favorite writers, Tocqueville obviously interprets his own “distraction” by worldly success in Pascalian terms; the recognition of his own vanity leads him to consider the problem of man’s inability to resolve the meaning of existence in the absence of God. Though he was inclined toward religion, though he was attached to Christian tradition and believed in an afterlife, Tocqueville had lost his faith at the age of sixteen and, unable ever to recover it, remained intellectually at odds with the Catholic Church all his life. He describes to Mme. Swetchine this deconversion, the greatest upheaval in his life, as the thunder that struck his lonely, bookish adolescence at Metz: “I was seized by unadulterated melancholy, then by an extreme distaste for life—without knowing life—and was, as it were, overwhelmed by distress and fear at the thought of the distance I still had to cover in this world.”
After this experience came not salvation but at least a way of forgetting: “Violent passions pulled me out of this state of despair….” The violent passion was not yet for recognition in society, but simply the young Tocqueville’s first love affair with a girl from the town. But passion is essentially transitory, he writes, and can only patch over the anxiety of a man without God. What Tocqueville later described in Democracy in America as the fundamental anxiety of democratic man in his independence and solitude, without reference or recourse to anything outside himself to help him find his place in the world, is something he had first experienced himself at the age of sixteen, when he lost his own faith. Insofar as the social democratic state is characterized by the responsibility of the individual for himself without any fixed point except his equality and his identity with others, this condition was prefigured for the young Tocqueville by the death of God and the state of being he had found described in his reading of Pascal.
In commenting on this omitted letter I hope I will encourage readers to turn to the others that Boesche has edited with immense skill and intelligence. Their effect is to show us all the more clearly that the achievement of Tocqueville does not lie in any single doctrine but in the acute and sometimes ambivalent ways he confronted the questions of equality, democracy, and tyranny that arose in his time and that continue unresolved in our own.
—translated by David Bellos
There are eighteen volumes of Tocqueville’s complete works in print in French. The second volume of the political writings and speeches will soon appear; but most of the English correspondence, the family and local correspondence, one volume of miscellaneous letters, and the literary and economic writings remain to be published. ↩
Only one volume of the English correspondence, including the letters to John Reeve and John Stuart Mill, has appeared so far. ↩
Two excellent recent studies reconstruct Tocqueville’s intellectual itinerary through Democracy: James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America‘ (University of North Carolina Press, 1980); J.C. Lamberti, Tocqueville et les deux démocraties (Presses universitaires de France, 1983). ↩