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 study1 ; 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.2 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.
What we succumb to includes nostalgia for the aristocratic values swept away by the French Revolution and anxiety about the psychological isolation of people in mass society, the theme so well explored a hundred years later in David Riesman’s 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd and Richard Sennett’s 1977 work The Fall of Public Man. Theorists of mass society focused on Tocqueville’s fears of mob rule; and recent American commentators have returned to him to argue that the nineteenth-century United States preserved a balance between individual liberty and social cohesion that no longer exists. In Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart (1985)—the title a phrase of Tocqueville’s own coinage—or Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), Tocqueville’s analyses, hopes, and fears are employed to illuminate our own. The intellectual battle between Marx and Tocqueville has been won unequivocally by Tocqueville; Marx is a fascinating antique, Tocqueville a contemporary.
This is an astonishing fact. Democracy in America was the work of a very young man. Tocqueville was not quite twenty-six years old when he arrived in the United States in 1831; and the country he visited was a young country, in almost all respects utterly different from the country it has become. He came to the United States once only; and he was here for barely nine months. A combination of bad weather, bad health, impassable roads, frozen rivers, and an idiosyncratic program ensured that Tocqueville got a very partial view of the country, geographically, socially, economically, and politically. He came with numerous preconceptions—“il a trop pensé avant qu’il n’avait rien vu,” said one sharp critic—all too few of which he discarded; then, as he himself said, went home to write about democracy for the benefit of his countrymen, whose political plight he had in mind throughout his American adventures. (Brogan writes of Tocqueville’s hopes for his work that it could be “his unburdening: in it he would hurl his convictions at the world.”)
Yet his social imagination was so powerful and his personality so engrossing that a book which might well have been subtitled “American Lessons for French Republicans” seized hold of generations of foreign readers, beginning most famously with John Stuart Mill. Mill’s two long and enthusiastic reviews of the two volumes of Democracy in 1835 and 1840 ensured that Tocqueville was as widely admired in the Anglophone world as among the French themselves. In Mill’s On Liberty, Tocqueville’s sociology underpinned the nearest thing to a sacred text that modern liberalism possesses. Mill seized on Tocqueville’s fear that in a democracy public opinion would be all powerful, and that individuality would be crushed by the pressure to conform. Much of Europe was still ruled by arbitrary despots, but it was not government terror or the secret police that threatened Britain and the United States; it was the “soft despotism” of respectable opinion stifling freedom of thought and imagination. Needless to say, many readers of both Tocqueville and Mill have thought their fears overdone: they have often been accused of “crying fire in a flood.”
Brogan is acerbically unforgiving of Tocqueville’s lapses as a political analyst and a political practitioner. One of the greatest virtues of this book is the fact that its author pulls no punches. Brogan notes, for example, that Democracy in America “says almost nothing” about Congress, even though “it was the key to understanding the whole political system”; and that Tocqueville’s analysis of the presidency is “unsatisfactory.” Overall, Brogan writes, “The impression is irresistible that the Démocratie was poured out rather than coolly composed,” adding about one chapter that “the general effect is somewhat higgledy-piggledy.” Whatever the charm of Tocqueville’s personality, his grasp of American political life was imperfect, not least because his aristocratic disdain for the rough and tumble of democratic politics blinded him to the realities of how American democracy functioned. He was particularly blind to the role that was played by political parties in giving some coherence to government; and that was part of an inability to understand the place of elections in democratic accountability.
Those were not his only incapacities. Tocqueville’s inability to sympathize with the everyday problems of ordinary people was a fatal handicap for his political career, and a grave weakness in his political analysis. Even the most sympathetic reader can hardly help flinching at his insistence that any attempt to relieve the suffering of the unemployed would be an economic disaster—whether this was the Irish in the early 1840s or the hungry and unemployed French between 1848 and 1851. There are many reasons why he was so unsympathetic; Brogan perhaps exaggerates the influence of his aristocratic background and underestimates the importance of the fact that the only first-rate economist he knew well was Nassau Senior, the Oxford economist who argued that the poor laws and the dole had exacerbated the problem of poverty in England. But whatever he is, Tocqueville is not a patron of the welfare-state liberalism of the late twentieth century.
Alexis de Tocqueville was born in July 1805. His parents had barely survived the French Revolution; as a newly married couple, they were arrested in the winter of 1793–1794, imprisoned in Paris, and watched during the summer of the Terror as their closest friends and relatives were led away to the guillotine. Tocqueville’s father, Hervé, had been scheduled for execution three days after Robespierre’s fall from power saved him. Hervé was surprisingly undamaged by the experience; released in the autumn of 1794, he set about recovering the family’s property and rebuilding his life. He was more robust than either his wife or his most famous son; he died at the age of eighty-four only a few years before Alexis died at the age of fifty-four in 1859. Tocqueville’s mother was for the rest of her life a semi-invalid; she was less physically infirm than prey to minor physical and psychological ailments that made her querulous and anxious. One source of misery was that she bore three sons, and longed always for the daughter she never had.
Alexis was the youngest son, and from the first was marked out as unusually clever and unusually attractive. He was small—nobody agrees whether he was five feet four or five feet five—and physically frail, but determined to make his mark on the world. His family was part of the old military nobility, the noblesse d’épée, and it was a source of grief that he could not have a military career as most of his cousins and friends did. He did his best to put himself in harm’s way, both on journeys to America and North Africa and during the Revolution of 1848 and Louis Bonaparte’s subsequent coup d’état.
Alexis grew up in the bosom of the Restoration state. After the exile of Napoleon, Hervé gained his reward from the restored Bourbon monarchy: he was appointed préfet in Metz and eventually landed the plum job of préfet at Versailles. Alexis was initially educated by the tutor who had looked after his older brothers, the Abbé Le Sueur, a priest of uncompromisingly reactionary political opinions, great sweetness of character, and great tolerance for the vagaries of teenage boys. Alexis lost his faith during adolescence, and never regained it; but it is a testimony to the influence of Bébé —as the Abbé Le Sueur was called—that he lamented his infidelity all his life.
Hervé de Tocqueville was not a reactionary; but he was devoted to Louis XVIII and to his successor Charles X, though intelligent enough to see clearly the weaknesses that led to the revolution of July 1830 and the replacement of Charles X by the “bourgeois monarch” Louis-Philippe. By 1830, Alexis had begun his abortive career in the legal administration; he was an excellent student at the lycée in Metz, studied law in Paris, and somewhat reluctantly accepted the post of juge suppléant—an assistant prosecutor—at Versailles. The work was boring, but compensated by the company of Gustave de Beaumont, his travelling companion in America and lifelong friend. The 1830 revolution posed a problem. The Tocquevilles were legitimists, supporters of the Bourbon monarchy; the incoming regime required public servants to sign a loyalty oath. Hervé had left the administrative service two years before the revolution when he was appointed a peer; his son had to decide between his loyalties and his career. Very reluctantly, he and Beaumont gritted their teeth and signed.
Even so, they were objects of suspicion to their superiors. Tocqueville had no wish to spend his life in civil service; he saw his proper place as being in parliament and government. But until the dust settled, there was no prospect of a political career. A journey to the United States to study the American penal system would get the two friends out of harm’s way, and leave the question of their futures for their return. It was more than an excuse for a long absence; Beaumont and Tocqueville were genuinely interested in prison reform. French prisons were a mixture of cruelty by neglect, indiscipline, and disorder; reformers knew that in the United States model prisons had been established in the hope that predictable discipline, hard labor, and a regime of solitary confinement to protect prisoners from one another’s corrupting effect would bring about a moral reformation in the prisoner.
Brogan points out for anyone who might overlook it that Tocqueville’s ideas of reform were far from humanitarian. When Hervé de Tocqueville investigated the prison at Poissy, he was appalled by the filth, the poor diet, the rags in which the prisoners were clad, and the way that local contractors who employed the prisoners gave them only enough care to prevent their dying and causing embarrassment. Visiting some years later, Alexis was appalled by the fact that on a Sunday afternoon prisoners were eating roast chicken and drinking wine. That, he believed, was no way to secure their moral reformation!
Beaumont and Tocqueville crafted a meticulous research proposal; their superiors agreed they could have eighteen months’ leave—if they paid their own way. In the spring of 1831, they set out for the United States, arriving in Newport on May 9, and taking a steamboat to New York the next day. Their epic journey, described well by Brogan, merits a book in its own right; that book was written many years ago by G.W. Pierson, and is again in print.3 Most readers will think of Tocqueville only as the author of Democracy in America. But Brogan reminds us that the two travelers wished to make a reputation as prison reformers when they returned home, and took their investigations seriously. They succeeded: Le Système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis, published in 1832, was the first product of their journey; it was widely read and well thought of both in France and in Great Britain. When Tocqueville visited England in 1833, before he wrote the first volume of Democracy, his name was already well known in political circles.
The Système pénitentiaire was a significant piece of social science, and was awarded the Prix Monthyon by the Academy of Social Sciences. In spite of the shortage of American statistics on topics such as recidivism rates, the authors did a great deal with the evidence they had. It is not, for all that, a likeable book. The authors admired Auburn and Sing Sing penitentiaries, where the use of the whip to enforce discipline was frequent; they admired Cherry Hill in Philadelphia, run by Quakers and less violent, but based on long sentences of solitary confinement and hard labor. They even admired Elam Lynds, the designer of the Auburn system, who was dismissed from both Sing Sing and Auburn for excessive brutality.
The authors had hoped to find American prisoners reformed in their morals and were disappointed to find they were not; but the remedy seemed to them to be even closer supervision and even fiercer discipline, so that prison would serve a deterrent purpose if not a reformative one. None of their reviewers thought differently; “philanthropy” was out of fashion. Brogan notes the oddity that the offspring of aristocratic families who had been all too close to prison life during the Revolution should be so out of sympathy with the unfortunates who found themselves in jail forty years later.
Brogan also reminds us of the eagerness of the two visitors to find, buried beneath the all-too-English America of 1831, the lost French empire in America. France’s renunciation of its American ambitions at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 was only a little beyond living memory. When they reached the Great Lakes and heard a half-caste forester singing in Norman French, they were enchanted. Unsurprisingly, they enjoyed their brief side trip to Lower Canada—Quebec—more than any other part of their journey; the countryside reminded them of Normandy; and the tidy little villages along the St. Lawrence contrasted favorably with the scruffy cabins they would later see on their journey down the Ohio and the Mississippi.
Tocqueville knew what he would encounter on the Great Lakes. François-René de Chateaubriand, the author of Voyage en Amérique as well as Mémoires d’outre-tombe, was a near relation; he had wisely exiled himself to the United States for the duration of the French Revolution, and his two sons had been brought up by Hervé de Tocqueville. Democracy recalls Chateaubriand’s travel writing and prefigures that of the Marquis de Custine, the French nobleman whose travels in Russia in 1839 were a literary sensation. But if Tocqueville had literary influences on which to draw for his descriptions of the vast emptiness of the American forests and the inky darkness of the Mississippi at midnight, he was the writer who articulated the “frontier thesis” made famous sixty years later, when he observed how deeply American social and political life was influenced by the open frontier and how dramatically it might change once the entire continent was settled.
Their stay in the United States was cut short by a request from the French government to Beaumont to return to France. In the event, it took them some time to find a passage home; they had been tempted by the idea of returning by way of England, but a cholera epidemic was raging, and it would have been rash to return except directly to France. They sailed on February 20, 1832. When Tocqueville’s family knew that he and Beaumont were proposing to sail home in the late winter, they wrote to express their fear that he might come to harm in the equinoctial gales. He replied brusquely:
We ran a hundred times more risks on the steamboats, but you were never anxious. Yet thirty of them blew up or were wrecked during our first six weeks in the US. We left one of them three hours before the explosion; another time, we split like a nutshell on a rock.
Their journey home was uneventful.
What had they learned? The extended answer was provided by the two volumes of Democracy published in 1835 and 1840. But before Tocqueville turned to the first volume, he and Beaumont had unsettled business. Their superiors were no more convinced than before that Beaumont and Tocqueville were loyal to the Orleanist regime; and the regime itself was unloved, badly rattled by the cholera epidemic that had now spread to France, and not disposed to take risks with young men who by upbringing were unreliable. Even a more relaxed regime would have been made nervous by the conspiratorial antics of Beaumont’s and Tocqueville’s friends and relatives, among which the high—or low—point was a farcical invasion of southern France by legitimist supporters of the Duchesse de Berry in which Tocqueville’s cousin and close friend Louis de Kergolay was implicated. Within a month of their return, Beaumont’s superiors contrived to put him in an impossible position. When he refused a direct order to prosecute in a highly political case—in which he would be representing some particularly scandal-prone allies of Louis Philippe and therefore the sworn foes of all Beaumont’s friends and relations—he was dismissed. Tocqueville protested on his friend’s behalf, and resigned his own post.
The two friends settled down to write Le Système pénitentiare aux États-Unis et son application en France. The second half of the title was important. It was not only an account of the American penal system, but a careful discussion of its lessons for France. Unlike Beaumont’s novel Marie ou l’esclavage or Tocqueville’s two-volume Democracy, it was not intended to show its authors’ literary talents, but to show they were sober, middle-of-the-road reformers, apolitical, public-spirited, and unshocking.
The report was very widely praised, even though the chaotic condition of French politics meant that systematic plans of administrative reform had little hope of success. Indeed, as Brogan wryly observes, the French acquired a political system able to absorb that kind of dispassionate advice only a hundred and thirty years later. He also observes that whereas in 1832 American states vied to be the most progressive in their penal policies, they now compete to be the most reactionary.
Tocqueville delayed writing Democracy in order to visit England. He was almost as astonished as he had been by the United States, and once again his reactions were a mixture of sharp perception and incomprehension. He was astonished by the informality of the House of Lords when he attended a debate—the members of the Chamber of Peers attended in uniform—but hardly noticed that the motion being discussed was the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. He ignored the House of Commons just as he had ignored the House of Representatives when he visited Washington, even though the Reform Act of the previous year had made it much more powerful than before.
Just as he had believed that America was a society entirely composed of the middle class, so he thought that England was governed by an aristocracy, and—like many English commentators—had thought that the violent protests immediately preceding the passage of the 1832 Reform Act amounted to an English 1789. He came to see that this was not the case, and followed distinguished predecessors in crediting the survival of the British aristocracy to the fact that it was not a closed caste, but a ruling class still able to renew its vitality by absorbing fresh blood and new money as it had done for three centuries.
The journey inspired him to start writing. He wrote very fast, he hardly ever revised what he wrote, and although he used every resource at his disposal, his method was essentially to work his way very rapidly through one theme after another. Brogan treats the first volume of Democracy as part pamphlet, part sociological and historical treatise, and in both respects a flawed work of genius. The book is built around the sweeping claim that democracy is irresistible, a river whose energies may be channeled but cannot be resisted; equality—which Mill complained that Tocqueville habitually confused with democracy—had been advancing for many centuries and its advance, for Tocqueville, bore the marks of a divinely ordained process. The historical, geographical, constitutional, and cultural details reinforce these large claims.
As a work of political sociology, Democracy in America is astonishing. As one or two critics mentioned at the time, its only precursor was Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. Like Montesquieu, Tocqueville was keenly aware that what happened in any particular society was in large part the result of historical contingencies; the point de départ of the United States was for him the fact of its being settled by English Puritans. (It is an old, and entirely fair, criticism that he never paid the same attention to Virginia that he paid to New England.)
But even though the American experience was unique, it displayed the workings of general forces; the acute observer could see the general in the particular and draw appropriate lessons. The English brought with them English habits of self-government that were peculiar to their experience, but America showed the principles on which any nonaristocratic government could operate. “Self-interest rightly understood” was an adequate basis for middle-class government. Decentralization, too, had come more easily to Americans than to Frenchmen for local reasons; but any society whose members were adept at self-help could resist centralization. Flexibility, economy, and efficiency would all be served if they did.
The book made Tocqueville famous. Literary fame did not satisfy him, however. He longed for the life of a statesman. He stood for election to the Chamber of Deputies in the Normandy district of Valognes in 1837, and narrowly lost. He stood again in 1839, and won easily. French politics under Louis-Philippe was chaotic; nor was Tocqueville sure whom to support. His hostility to the very idea of accepting the discipline of a political party was almost insuperable, and his idea of a career in politics was more suited to the Roman Senate than to a modern parliamentary system. Tocqueville had to decide where to sit in the Chamber: “the place where one plants one’s behind is of the first importance.” Brogan regards that remark as mere fussing by Tocqueville. But André Jardin, the well-known Tocqueville scholar, records that Tocqueville chose aptly: high up and slightly to the left of center. Tocqueville belonged to the left opposition, but could easily have been induced to support an only marginally more liberal government; and his elevated perch suggested his wish to be au-delà de la mêlée.
Politics or no politics, there was the second volume of Democracy in America to complete. Its success was not as great as that of the first volume, and for good reason. It is a more difficult book, and a far less exuberant one. Whereas the first volume of Democracy announced that with whatever qualifications, democracy in the United States was a smashing success, the second volume returns over and over to Tocqueville’s fears for the future. Could democracy ever achieve a high intellectual culture? Probably not, though it could create a broadly educated and ingenious public. Was democracy destined to end in some form of despotism? It might well do so; perhaps in a form of Caesarism under a military adventurer, but more probably in a novel form of “soft despotism,” the management of comfortable sheep by a benevolent government that would allow its subjects to do anything except take responsibility for themselves. The prospect of “unending enfeeblement of the mind, sordid manners, and, at last, universal slavery” was not one his readers wanted to confront. The political climate was also against Tocqueville. Supporters of a monarchical solution to the chronic instability of French politics were becoming increasingly conservative while their opponents were beginning to think of a socialist republic.
Tocqueville was not hopeful for the prospects of a democratic republic in France, but was contemptuous of the ministries that served Louis-Philippe. The politics of 1840s France did nothing to persuade Tocqueville that matters would improve. They did not. A run of bad harvests led to the revolution of February 1848 and the downfall of Louis-Philippe. The Second Republic was proclaimed, and France tried once more to do what it had failed to achieve after 1789. The February Revolution was astonishingly bloodless. Louis-Philippe refused to bring the contest between himself and the Parisian street to a pitched battle, and went quietly into exile. Tocqueville drew almost exactly the wrong conclusions from the February Revolution; he saw it as a trial of strength between the mob on the one side and law and order on the other, and thought that sooner rather than later, order would have to be restored.
The economic situation worsened, and revolution broke out across much of Europe. In Paris, the tensions between the working-class inhabitants of the city and their political masters finally exploded in the so-called June Days, when four days of street fighting left at least three thousand insurgents dead. Tocqueville accompanied a column of troops on June 24 to encourage them in their work, and was lucky to escape death or serious injury when they were fired on from the rooftops and fired wildly in all directions in response. “It made me realize that all is not heroic in the heroic game of war.” Having looked forward to the showdown, he was implacable in victory; only when the dust had settled did he argue for the kind of attention to working-class grievances that would have made the June Days unnecessary.
He did not misread the situation as dramatically as Marx in his Communist Manifesto. The revolutions of 1848 were certainly more nearly contests over the fundamental principles of legitimacy—particularly dynastic legitimacy—than they were prefaces to the overthrow of capitalism and the installation of a socialist utopia. Nonetheless, it was a failure both of imagination and of ordinary human sympathy on Tocqueville’s part to say nothing about the hunger and insecurity that faced the unemployed poor of Paris and elsewhere. The new republic failed as badly as had Louis-Philippe’s governments. Its bourgeois supporters deserted it on one side and its working-class supporters deserted it on the other. Tocqueville, on the other hand, played a much more vigorous part in politics between February 1848 and December 1851—when Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état put an end to the republic—than he had in the previous decade.
It all came to naught, though readers of Brogan’s meticulous account of Tocqueville’s labors in Normandy and in Paris will share his admiration for Tocqueville’s insights into the hopelessness of the makeshift constitutional arrangements that the defenders of the Second Republic manufactured in the hope of keeping Louis Bonaparte at bay. Tocqueville wrote a wonderful blow-by-blow account of those months, and even if Brogan’s belief that the Souvenirs is the book we would regret losing above all others is extravagant, it certainly displays an extraordinary self-knowledge as well as an extraordinary political intelligence.
Toqueville’s observation of Louis Bonaparte, whom he served as foreign minister during 1849, was especially acute; he had begun by thinking him stupid, now he realized that he was a dissimulator who was impenetrable even to such a careful observer as himself. Tocqueville insisted that Bonaparte would be slow to launch a coup d’état—he “never made two moves in succession”—but had no doubt that he would do so in the end. It all ended as Tocqueville expected on December 2, 1851, with Tocqueville and many other parliamentarians arrested and jailed—fairly politely—and the subsequent institution of what became the Second Empire.
With a life in politics closed to him—Napoleon III would have employed him, but Tocqueville would have despised himself for accepting a position—Tocqueville turned to writing his third masterpiece, L’Ancien Régime et la révolution. Only the first part of the project was finished before he died in 1859. By 1852, he was a very sick man. He must have contracted tuberculosis no later than 1849, perhaps earlier, and his digestive ailments had been disabling long before that. The book he left behind was only an indication of what he might have written, but like the two volumes of Democracy it transformed his subject. As Brogan writes:
Tocqueville did not live to show the revolutionary assemblies at work or to do more than allude to the crowning achievements of Napoleon, but he said quite enough to transform the historiography of the Revolution for good.
He inverted all expectations by demonstrating the continuity between France before 1789 and the France of his own day. The Revolution may have been sudden, violent, and full of surprising turns; but it only accelerated the changes in French society that had long been underway during the monarchy. Modern writers tend to support this view. Tocqueville’s contemporaries were startled; the one thing they all agreed on was that 1789 had made a great breach in French history. For Tocqueville, the political message was clear. The great danger to French liberty was posed by bureaucratic despotism. And such authoritarian bureaucracies were far from being at odds with social equality and political democracy. On the contrary, Tocqueville wrote, they were likely to accelerate both.
As he did throughout the two volumes of Democracy in America Tocqueville struck a delicate balance between political pamphleteering and abstract analysis. He also struck a delicate balance between nostalgia for an aristocratic past and a bleak acknowledgment of the cruelty and oppression that the common people experienced under the ancien régime. And even if he was thoroughly parti pris on behalf of the right of the “notables”—active, privileged officials and landowners who exercised public power—to govern France, he was not a wholehearted admirer of their political skills. He has, after all, become well known for his claim that when they mocked religion and undermined the privileges of the Church, the pre-revolutionary aristocrats were sharpening the blades of the guillotine for themselves.
Tocqueville’s last three years were a long drawn-out struggle with illness. Nineteenth-century medicine had little with which to fend off the advance of tuberculosis, and patients were fortunate if their doctors did not make their lives shorter and more painful. Marie was herself frequently ill, and beside herself with grief and anxiety. Brogan’s skill as a biographer makes the book a pleasure to read when we are following Tocqueville through America or watching him risk his life in the Paris streets in 1848; the same skill makes these last pages a harrowing read. Nonetheless, even after seven hundred pages and enough misery and illness to fill a dozen Victorian novels, this is a book the reader wants never to end.
November 22, 2007
Tocqueville (Fontana/Collins, 1972). ↩
G.W. Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); ten years ago, CNN organized a bus tour to follow up Tocqueville’s journey around America, and to explore the countryside around his home in Normandy; that can be found on videotape. ↩