To the Editors:
Garry Wills, whose work I greatly admire, clearly thinks less of Tocqueville than I do [“Did Tocqueville ‘Get’ America?,” NYR, April 29]. It is not part of a translator’s duty to defend his author, but translating Tocqueville has made me warm to his thought, about which I once shared some of Mr. Wills’s skepticism, and persuaded me of the need to read him more patiently than his critic seems prepared to do.
For instance, Wills argues that François Furet destroyed Tocqueville’s “central thesis on the bureaucracy” by adducing empirical data to undermine the assertion that it was “staffed mainly by commoners.” To my mind, this misrepresents both Tocqueville’s thesis and Furet’s revision. Tocqueville argued not that the bureaucracy was a model egalitarian institution in itself but rather that it was an instrument used by absolute monarchy to destroy “intermediary bodies” such as parlements, guilds, corporations, municipalities, estates, and nobles with regional influence. This left nothing between the state and the individual with the institutional heft to oppose centralized power. Tocqueville recognized the need for “governmental centralization” in a large state with extensive economic and foreign policy interests, but he continued to regard “administrative centralization” as a potential instrument of despotism. Furet, moreover, invokes the work of Augustin Cochin precisely to answer Wills’s question as to how administrative centralization could have been reproduced after the French Revolution “even though the bearers of that tradition disappeared.”
Wills further states that among Tocqueville’s “most heavily worked ideas” is “the fact that prosperity is a better seed ground for revolution than penury.” There is indeed textual justification for attributing to Tocqueville an early version of the “revolution of rising expectations,” yet Tocqueville also wrote that “the more abundant and diversified a nation’s movable property is, and the larger the number of people who own such property, the less disposed that nation’s people will be to revolution…. Men in democracies…like change but dread revolutions.”
Wills writes, moreover, that “Tocqueville held that American Indians were outside his subject, equality, since they were not equal to white men, but were their inferiors.” Yes, but only in the sense that the European noble was “inferior” to the European bourgeois: “The Indian, in the depths of his sylvan misery, thus nurses the same ideas and the same opinions as the medieval nobleman in his fortified castle.” For Tocqueville, the Indian was doomed as the European nobility from which Tocqueville himself sprang was doomed, because neither could adapt to the “civilization” that was for him as for Rousseau an undoubted source of power but not an unalloyed good.
Finally, Wills states that Tocqueville spent just enough time in the South “to pick up all the prejudices of the region” and quotes Tocqueville’s unflattering portrait of the Negro slave to sustain the allegation. Perhaps he is right, but Tocqueville also wrote that “racial prejudice seems to me stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where slavery still exists, and nowhere is intolerance greater than in states where servitude is unknown.” Although he may merely have “divined” or “intuited” this judgment without sufficient empirical research, as Wills (quoting James Bryce) maintains, the acuity of his intuition deserves recognition.
Wills is of course correct that Tocqueville’s intuitive method and oracular style did not always serve him well. But just as it is absurd to claim that he got everything right, so, too, is it absurd to claim that he got everything wrong. Perhaps the secret of his longevity is that the very defects of his manner have provoked readers to sort out right from wrong ever since the work was first published, as Wills so engagingly demonstrates with critical quotes from such informed admirers as Mill, Bryce, and Furet.
Translator of the Library of America edition of Democracy in America
Garry Wills replies:
I am grateful for the clarifications, and relieved that they do not affect my points. The substitution of new bureaucrats at the Revolution still does not fit with Tocqueville’s claim that “habits of the heart” (moeurs) trump administrative enactments.
August 12, 2004