“Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” So claim the editors of this new edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. These are indeed bold judgments, but certainly defensible ones. In fact, I am hard put to come up with a better book on democracy or a better book on America.
That this should be so is quite astonishing. Tocqueville was a Frenchman and anything but an American-style democrat. He was born into a royalist family; indeed, his paternal grandfather was guillotined by the Jacobins in the French Revolution, while his father narrowly escaped execution. Yet he spent his life telling his countrymen not to hate the consequences of that revolution. He was a proud aristocrat who had no appreciation of ordinary people and in fact thought they were as boring and as commonplace as potatoes. Yet he never despaired of democracy. He visited the United States ostensibly to study only its prisons but actually to study its democratic culture. Nevertheless, he wrote his book about America while all the time thinking about France. Indeed, as he told a correspondent in 1847, “I did not write one page of it without thinking about her and without having her, so to speak, before my eyes.” He came to America in 1831—nearly a century and three quarters ago—and stayed for only nine months. And yet in that brief time this foreign aristocrat was able to gather enough information about Americans and enough insight into their character and their government to write what is arguably the best book ever written not only on America but also on democracy itself. No wonder we find the achievement remarkable.
Yet of course Tocqueville relied on more than his nine-month visit to the United States for his achievement. As we know from James T. Schleifer’s masterful study The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1980), Tocqueville drew on many additional sources for his knowledge of America. Upon his return to France not only did he read a wide variety of books and documents concerning the United States, but he also continued to correspond with Americans he had met, many of whom were ex-Federalists or proto-Whigs frightened by the victory of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Moreover, he hired as his research assistants two young Americans traveling in France—Theodore Sedgwick III and Francis J. Lippitt. Tocqueville especially questioned Sedgwick about many issues, including federalism and American mores. It is impossible to tell what influence this young grandson of an old Massachusetts Federalist and the son of a Jacksonian Democrat had on Tocqueville (or vice versa). But young Sedgwick impressed Tocqueville enough to become his lifelong friend, and Sedgwick’s subsequent distinguished legal career certainly revealed a Tocquevillean balance between faith in democracy and fear of majority tyranny.
In a foreword to Schleifer’s book, the distinguished Yale University scholar George W. Pierson, whose 1938 book Tocqueville and Beaumont in America effectively launched modern Tocquevillean studies, praised Schleifer for having “brought over the horizon for the first time the possibility of a great annotated edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy: an edition this classic deserves and workers beyond the field of Tocqueville scholarship will be grateful for.”
The new volume under review, translated and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, is not this “great annotated edition.” The editors have made only a few annotations and seem to have designed those few for undergraduate classroom use—limiting them mostly, for example, to such things as dating the invention of the printing press or identifying Raphael as an Italian Renaissance painter.
Mansfield and Winthorp, however, do have a new translation. It is the first in English since George Lawrence’s of a generation ago and only the third since Tocqueville’s original two-volume work was published in 1835 and 1840. The new translation is crisp and generally more readable than the Lawrence translation. It tries to be as faithful as possible to Tocqueville’s thought as he expressed it rather than restating his thought in modern terms. And it strives for the impartiality that Tocqueville himself desired. In 1839 Tocqueville chastised Henry Reeve, his friend and the author of the first English translation of Democracy in America, for violating that impartiality. “Without wishing to do so and by following the instinct of your opinions,” Tocqueville told Reeve, “you have quite vividly colored what was contrary to Democracy and almost erased what could do harm to Aristocracy.” Mansfield and Winthrop want to restore some of the balance between democracy and aristocracy that Tocqueville intended.
It is not the translation, however, that makes this new version vastly different from other editions; it is the editors’ substantial seventy-page introduction. The editors have written more than a mere introduction; they have written in fact a small book, a remarkably comprehensive and yet succinct study of Tocqueville’s political thought. Their introduction is political theory of a very high order. I say this with some hesitation because I am a historian, and historians are not usually comfortable with political theorists, especially political theorists who seek timeless generalizations about politics and ignore particular historical contexts and circumstances. Politics may be politics and democracy may be democracy wherever and whenever they exist, but the circumstances of both, the contexts that give them meaning, differ significantly from place to place and from time to time. It is the differences that historians are after, not the similarities.
Mansfield and Winthrop certainly approach Tocqueville as political theorists, and not as historians. Indeed, Harvey Mansfield, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, is one of the nation’s most distinguished students of political theory. (Since his co-editor, and wife, also teaches at Harvard, the two editors decided to retaliate for Tocqueville’s elusive references in his Democracy in America to “the University at Cambridge (Massachusetts)” by pointing out that Tocqueville’s working manuscripts are now preserved “at a university located in New Haven, Conn.”). Although Mansfield is the author or editor of at least nine books, ranging from studies of Bolingbroke and Burke to those on Machiavelli and American constitutional politics, he is probably best known as a Harvard professor whose outspoken conservatism drives many of his colleagues to distraction. He has been called the “prince of conservatives” at Harvard, the “wry and natty Mansfield” who “can always be counted on for a rhetorical rapier thrust” against the university’s “liberal orthodoxy.”1 Mansfield once saw himself as a friend to a liberalism that over the past generation has been hijacked by illiberal New Leftists and radical postmodernists. Now he says he speaks more directly to conservatives.
But in this introduction he and his co-editor try not to flaunt their conservatism. They point out that Tocqueville appeals to both the left and the right and is quoted and cited by everyone on both sides of many issues. On the left he is the supporter of community and civic engagement opposed both to an industrial aristocracy and the bourgeois or commercial passion for material well-being. On the right he is cited for his warnings against “big government” and his liking for decentralization as well as for his celebration of individual energy and his strictures against egalitarian excess.
Yet perhaps in the end the editors’ overwhelming admiration for Tocqueville is an accurate expression of today’s conservatism. For not only did Tocqueville believe in American exceptionalism and American consensus—anathemas to New Left historians—but also, like the old-fashioned nineteenth-century liberal that he was, he ultimately valued liberty, that “sacred thing,” above all else. “I have a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights—but not for democracy,” he wrote at one point. “Liberty is my foremost passion. This is the truth!” In everything he did he sought to discover the means by which liberty could be protected in a democratic society.
Mansfield has often been called a follower of Leo Strauss, the German-born political theorist who taught at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Since Strauss has had an extraordinary influence on American students of political theory who have become disgusted with modernism and its relativism, skepticism, and nihilism, it is not surprising that Mansfield has been labeled a Straussian. In his first book on Burke and Bolingbroke, Mansfield thanks Strauss for many of its ideas, and his subsequent work has certainly had a Straussian flavor. In their introduction to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America Mansfield and Winthrop reveal some Straussian principles, namely in their refer-ences to “regimes”—Strauss’s word for different political arrangements and the conventions that allow them to operate—and in their desire to understand Tocqueville as he understood himself. But in general their discussion of Tocqueville’s political theory seems remarkably historicist, that is, bounded and best explained by particular historical circumstances; and thus, on this point at least, it seems very un-Straussian.
Straussians generally reject the modern belief that all human thought and action are the products of particular changing historical circumstances in which there is no natural right, no fixed ground for reason or eternal and universal judgments. Such modern historicist thinking, such a rejection of timeless truths, they believe, have resulted in the moral confusion and permissiveness of our time, where all standards and truths are challenged, where positive rights are created promiscuously, and where anything goes. Mansfield certainly shares much of this Straussian rejection of historicist relativism, as his many previous writings reveal. But not, it seems, in this introduction. He and his co-editor have situated Tocqueville’s political thought very much in historical reality. Indeed, their particular scholarly contribution is to turn Tocqueville into the supreme theorist of modern democracy—a theorist, however, who grounds his theory in actual experience, in the realities of history, not in universal abstractions or timeless truths.
Mansfield and Winthrop believe that Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of the great books of Western political theory—a belief shared by Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, a moderate royalist statesman under the French Bourbon restoration and one of Tocqueville’s correspondents. “To find a work to compare it with,” Royer-Collard told a friend in 1835, “you have to go back to Aristotle’s Politics and [Montesquieu’s] Spirit of the Laws.” In order to confirm Royer-Collard’s judgment the editors spend some time in setting Tocqueville’s book in the context of the works of many of the great Western political theorists, but of these two in particular. Like Aristotle and Montesquieu, they write, Tocqueville begins with politics as it is lived and observed. But lived and observed not in fifth-century Athens or in eighteenth-century Europe, but in his own time, in the nineteenth century—in the age of the emerging democratic revolution.
Tocqueville, the editors contend, is different from most political philosophers. He does not believe in philosophers as kings, nor does he believe in any scientific or institutional substitute for the rule of the duly enlightened. He does not impose his principles on reality from the outside. He does not prescribe some ideal form of government for the world. “Unlike Aristotle, who begins from actual politics but always tends toward something higher, Tocqueville does not discuss the best regime or use it to urge on his readers or, on the contrary, to set a limit on political ambition.” Nor does he seek to describe the sole legitimate regime like Rousseau in The Social Contract.
Nor is he simply looking for what is universally attainable. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, he does not begin with a state of nature outside all government, nor does he rest his liberalism on law or on the sovereignty of the legislator. According to the editors, Tocqueville criticizes even James Madison for his ultimate reliance on the rights of man in a state of nature. No such abstractions, whether ancient or modern, appeal to Tocqueville. He is closest to Montesquieu. Like Montesquieu, his philosophy is modest and self-effacing; he accepts facts as given and refrains from making the kinds of stern moral and metaphysical judgments of Aristotle. Both Montesquieu and Tocqueville, the editors claim, have “no hankering for the impossible, for the rule of the wise.”
Tocqueville was certainly much influenced by Montesquieu. Both theorists share, say Mansfield and Winthrop, “a political science that centers on the facts of human existence rather than on human nature.” Tocqueville, following Montesquieu, rejects the classical Aristotelian classification of regimes into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy precisely because these regimes were based on various inclinations of human nature: a monarchical nature at one time, an aristocratic at another, and so on. Instead Tocqueville particularizes these different regimes, and takes their specific historical circumstances rather than human nature as given. Only when human nature has been particularized and historicized in this way, the editors argue, should generalizations be made—generalizations, however, that are not universal and timeless truths but sociological types produced by changing historical experience.
But because Tocqueville is writing about a modern democracy that has left Montesquieu’s aristocratic world behind, he inevitably departs from him. Montesquieu sought to use aristocratic honor to combat monarchical despotism. For Tocqueville, however, the aristocracy is gone, and its honor will somehow have to be artificially created in order to combat a new despotism—democratic despotism. Furthermore, unlike Montesquieu, who posited a variety of national spirits, Tocqueville believed there existed only two types of societies or governments—aristocracy and democracy—identified not only as opposing ways of life but as distinct historical epochs. So-called mixed regimes of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy were a chimera, he said, “because in each society one discovers in the end one principle of action that dominates all the others.” At one time this dominant social power was aristocracy, now it is democracy. Aristocracy for Tocqueville included all pre-democratic governments and was the sole alternative to democracy. It was, the editors contend, “no less legitimate than democracy, indeed in its day more legitimate, but that day is gone.” Aristocracy was being irresistibly replaced by democracy. And the inevitable spread of democracy tended to make all previous political theory irrelevant—creating something of a problem for Straussians wishing to study Plato and Aristotle.
Since this democratic revolution was progressing most fully and rapidly in the new democratic republic of the United States (which made America, the editors say, “in that sense exceptional”), it was there that it could be most fruitfully studied. “Thus for Tocqueville,” write Mansfield and Winthrop, “‘democracy’ is something different from ‘America,’ as he frequently reminds his readers, even though it is America that reveals the fact of democracy’s arrival.” But he so often mingles his discussion of democracy with America that it is not surprising that readers should have difficulty separating the two. There can be little doubt, however, that his ultimate aim was to explain not America but the democratic revolution. “I confess that in America,” he wrote, “I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.”
Tocqueville thus came to America in 1831, three years after the election of Andrew Jackson, to discover the future and to explain what he meant when he said that “a new political science is needed for a world altogether new.” But this new political science is not the checks and balances, the separation of powers, and the federalism of America’s governments; these are restraints on democracy, but they do not describe democracy. And this new world cannot be just the United States in the 1830s; it is, say the editors, “our world, the Western world, the modern world.”
In this new world, expressed most clearly in America, something called a “social state” (état social) is created. This social state, Mansfield and Winthrop contend, is the first of three new features of political science that Tocqueville has discovered. The others are his notion of semblables (those like oneself) and his practice of making predictions. The social state is a complicated thing; it is both product and cause of the laws, customs, and ideas of nations. Because it is not the government but includes the government, it cannot have a classical political foundation.
In order to explain America’s social state Tocqueville avoids making the formation of the Constitution a point of departure and instead goes back to the seventeenth-century settlements, to the Puritan settlements in particular, for the beginnings of America’s democracy. In coming to America the early European settlers, says Tocqueville, shed their aristocratic ways of life and arrived at democracy without having to suffer a democratic revolution. The Americans were “born equal instead of becoming so.” (This is the Tocquevillean insight that was so effectively exploited by Louis Hartz in the 1950s in his powerfully argued book The Liberal Tradition in America. As Tocqueville’s reputation goes, so will go the reputation of Hartz’s book.)
What Tocqueville and his editors seem to be saying is that democracy tends to dissolve the sharp liberal distinction between state and society and to become all-encompassing, affecting all aspects of the society and culture, politics included. As the editors put it, “A democratic society will have a democratic politics, and vice versa.” In such a democratic society the idea of the sovereignty of the people takes on a special meaning and power. Combined with the democratic social state, the sovereignty of the people creates something called “public opinion,” which becomes the ruling force in a democratic society, “milder and less explicit than political authority, yet more confining than mere social agreement.” In a democracy individuals and their private opinions are weak, but when collected in a mass, when added up into public opinion, no one can stand against them. Americans value free speech, then as now; nevertheless Tocqueville declares that he did “not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.”
In such a democratic society where no one’s opinion was more valued than others, people had to be equal to one another. Hence Tocqueville and the editors make a great deal of the notion of semblables, those like oneself. Equality, thinking of others as like oneself, is in fact the most powerful value in a democratic society. It certainly has been so in the United States through most of its history right up to today. Some scholars like Sean Wilentz have criticized Tocqueville for emphasizing the equality of Americans in the 1830s when in fact America was already extremely diverse and marked by great discrepancies of wealth and class.2 But such criticism misses the point of Tocqueville’s emphasis on the equality that he found in American culture in the 1830s.
Of course, there were great differences among Americans in the 1830s, differences of wealth, class, race, and ethnicity, just as there are today. But Tocqueville grasped something about most Americans that still seems to ring true today—their conviction, despite what academics say about the differences of the “other,” that other people beneath all these differences are really like themselves. As Mansfield and Winthrop put it, “The democrat considers others to be like himself, and if they are truly different, he sees them to be like himself regardless. He ignores or flattens out any differences that might call equality into question.” This idea of equality, at least in a secular sense, was unprecedented in Western political thought, and for Tocqueville it is an inherent part of the democratic revolution. Indeed, it is the engine that drives that revolution.
The idea of a democratic revolution takes us to what the editors describe as the third new feature of Tocqueville’s political science, the practice of predicting. Beginning with James Bryce in the 1880s scholars have delighted in pointing out how many of Tocqueville’s predictions have not been borne out by events. Of course, Tocqueville did famously predict the eventual confrontation between the United States and Russia, and he had some very dire and prophetic things to say about the consequences of white Americans’ brutal enslavement of blacks. But these kinds of predictions are not what the editors have in mind. Prophesying this or that particular event, they suggest, is not what Tocqueville is about. He was really interested in predicting just one big event, the coming of a great democratic revolution, and on that score he seems to have been very right indeed.
“A great democratic revolution is taking place among us,” writes Tocqueville at the outset of his book. It began over a half a millennium earlier, he says, and its course of development is now relentless and irresistible. Indeed, this democratic revolution is continuing even today and accounts for much of present-day politics both in the United States and abroad.
In his second volume, published in 1840, five years after the first volume, Tocqueville, according to the editors, turned the argument from the natural rise of democracy in America to the influence of democracy on America. Because the second volume deals much less with America and seems so much more pessimistic about the democratic revolution than the first volume, some scholars, led by Seymour Drescher in an article written nearly forty years ago, have argued that it is really another book altogether, the product of Tocqueville’s dramatically altered perspective on the problem of democracy.3 Mansfield and Winthrop, like most Tocqueville scholars, are unwilling to go this far; in fact, by viewing Tocqueville’s book as the working out of a democratic political theory that transcends the American example they avoid the problem that Drescher posed.
Tocqueville shows, the editors argue, that the social circumstances of democratic equality produce not only the sovereignty of the people but also individualism—a conviction that one should live one’s life and seek material comfort without caring about anyone but oneself, or at most one’s family and friends. Living in such equal isolation and scrambling after the smallest comforts of material well-being, democratic citizens who began with exaggerated self-confidence may eventually be overwhelmed by a sense of joylessness and malaise and by feelings of weakness and insignificance. “With unlimited choices, unsure of everything and passionate about little else but securing their comfort,” the editors write, “they will be tempted to surrender responsibility for making their own decisions, and simply follow public opinion.”
In Tocqueville’s words, people will naturally turn their regard “to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement”—the central power of the state. Equality—the democratic hatred of privilege—writes Tocqueville, “favors the gradual concentration of all political rights in the hands of the sole representative of the state.” Unless means are found to avert these developments, democratic individuals will surrender their independence to the despotism of a centralized state. This new democratic despotism will not seem oppressive; to the contrary, says Tocqueville, it will be subtle and mild. The strong centralized state will care for its citizens; it will provide for their security, secure their needs, increase their pleasures, direct their industry, and regulate their estates. Its mild despotism will not break wills but soften, bend, and direct them. “It does not tyrannize,” writes Tocqueville, “it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” No wonder present-day conservatives admire Tocqueville!
There are means of preventing this kind of democratic apathy and mild despotism from developing, and Tocqueville spends considerable time showing the ways Americans have used them. These range from the decentralized administration in federalism and local self-governments to independent judges and juries, a free press, and the proliferation of voluntary associations, including those of religion. Tocqueville regards all of these institutions as schools of freedom that teach the idea of “self-interest well understood” and a respect for individual rights. He thus urges the artificial creation of these kinds of “secondary powers” that are natural to an aristocratic society in order to instill in a democratic society some of the spirit of aristocracy.
In their introduction Mansfield and Winthrop have made a remarkably comprehensive and tightly argued case for Tocqueville as the greatest political theorist of democracy, a theorist who is just as relevant today as he was in the nineteenth century. Indeed, with the collapse of Marxism and the Soviet Union he may be even more relevant today. Where other present-day students of democratic political theory tend to concentrate on the differences between the democratic status quo and a more democratic possible future, Tocqueville’s “political philosophy,” the editors argue, “takes place within democracy, in our era, the only possible regime whether good or ill.”
The problem for our time is not whether we can achieve more democracy; it is whether we can control the democracy we already have. The editors maintain that Tocqueville addresses a topic left largely undiscussed in formal liberalism—“the actual capacity of individuals to exercise their rights and stand up in their defense.” Liberals and Marxists and all those who demand more democracy simply assume that the capacity of individuals to exercise their rights will remain adequate. Tocqueville has no such assumption. “He argues,” the editors write, “that modern democracy makes its people increasingly incapable as citizens as they become more isolated and weak.” Since liberalism was born out of a struggle against the privileges and prejudices of an Old Regime, it may not be able to deal adequately with the problems of the new “regime” of democracy. “Formal liberalism does not appreciate that formal practices and institutions in a democracy have to be defended against the laziness and impatience of a democratic people.” Tocqueville is different. He does appreciate that democracy requires a certain character and capacity in its people that have to be developed and sustained; and thus, the editors conclude, he has much to teach us.
It is an elegant argument these two political theorists have made; and it will be interesting to see how other scholars of political theory will accept it. But for scholars of history what remains to be explained is why ideas generated out of the experience of Americans of the early 1830s should still have such resonance in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. If historians are correct in their belief that theories of government cannot really transcend particular times and circumstances, why then do Tocqueville’s ideas of American democracy created in the 1830s continue to seem so meaningful a century and three quarters later? The answer, in my view, lies in the fact that the generation of Americans that Tocqueville observed have had an inordinate influence on American identity and American values.
As Joyce Appleby has recently demonstrated, the generation that dominated American life in 1830, the first generation to come of age following the Revolution, created a myth of American identity—the America of enterprising, innovative, and equality-loving Americans—a myth so powerful that succeeding generations could scarcely question it.4 Capturing control of America’s sense of nationhood was largely a Northern achievement, as Tocqueville himself appreciated: his “Americans” were those “who inhabit the regions where slavery does not exist. Only they can present the complete image of a democratic society.” By 1830, the South, which at the time of the Revolution had been the impelling force in creating the nation, had become a bewildered and beleaguered minority out of touch with the enterprise and egalitarianism that now dominated the country.
Jacksonian America has always seemed to be the most American of all eras. It seems to be the central point in the trajectory of American history, the point toward which all previous American history was developing and the point from which all subsequent American history seems to be receding. The Jacksonian era was the period that defined the basic elements of America’s individualistic and egalitarian get-up-and-go materialistic culture. Tocqueville came to America at the very moment when Americans were constructing their sense of nationhood—a sense of America as the land of enterprise and opportunity, as the place where anybody who works hard can make it, as the nation of free and scrambling moneymaking individuals pursuing their happiness. This conception of the liberal American dream remains alive and influential even today, if not for many academics, then at least for many other Americans, including most recent immigrants. This is why Tocqueville’s great work of political theory, even though it grew out of the peculiar circumstances of Jacksonian America, still retains its power.
May 17, 2001
Janet Tassel, “The Thirty Years’ War: Cultural Conservatives Struggle with the Harvard They Love,” Harvard Magazine (September–October 1999). ↩
See Sean Wilentz, “Many Democracies: On Tocqueville and Jacksonian America,” in Reconsidering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, edited by Abraham S. Eisenstadt (Rutgers University Press, 1988), pp. 207–228. ↩
Seymour Drescher, “Tocqueville’s Two Democracies,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25 (1964), pp. 201–216. ↩