Few political philosophers may so fully enjoy the conceit that, as Alexis de Tocqueville once put it, they appeal to “many people whose ideals are contrary to my own”. Tocqueville’s prophetic self-assessment of his influence Democracy in America certainly accounts for no small share of his oeuvre’s enduring, seemingly timeless interest. Olivier Zunz’s superbly written biography, The Man Who Understood Democracyguides us through a doubt-ridden and at times deeply ambivalent Tocqueville who nonetheless remains one of democracy’s most careful and critical observers, even for his detractors.
Unlike those who have looked for the origins of Tocqueville’s thought in his heritage, Zunz argues that the noble chose from Normandy stood apart from his family, and even some of his closest friends, as he democracy over aristocracy. How did this great-grandson of Malesherbes – one of two lawyers to defend Louis XVI during the Revolution – and nephew of Chateaubriand come to settle on the other side of the French Revolution? The answer lies, unsurprisingly, in Tocqueville’s trip to America, the famous eight and a half months in 1831-32 that the Frenchman spent traveling with his closest friend, Gustave de Beaumont. We follow the two men in their mid-twenties (Alexis celebrated his twenty-sixth birthday on the trip), from their arrival in Newport, Rhode Island, across New York state and the Great Lakes to Green Bay, Wisconsin in the west, north to Quebec City, then, as autumn turned to winter, south towards Louisville, Nashville and New Orleans before leaving from New York City. By the time of their departure on February 20, 1832, Tocqueville shared his literary uncle’s assessment that “democracy tunnelled under thrones, bringing all aristocracies to ruins”.
Zunz’s account of Tocqueville’s travels reveals his difficulties with disease, death, and doubt. We learn what he saw – prisons, Native American removal, racism, local mayors, Boston Brahms and President Andrew Jackson. We also discover what he chose to ignore – the ravages of industrialization, corporal punishment and slave markets. It all amounted to an extraordinary, if selective, set of notes that Tocqueville laboriously and effectively turned into a two-volume bestseller that John Stuart Mill presented simply as “the first philosophical book ever written on Democracy, as it manifests itself in modern society” .
If Tocqueville discovered democracy on American soil, it was in Europe and in Britain that his ideas took on a new dimension, as he turned from theory to political action. Despite rough beginnings, Tocqueville quickly succeeded in winning local administration and national seats. From these positions he turned his gaze towards French politics, and Algeria in particular. As supportive as Tocqueville was of abolitionism, he remained an ardent nationalist and enthusiastic supporter of imperial conquest, as revealed in a series of reports on France’s adventure in North Africa. His writings on Algeria have been a centerpiece and, in some cases, a conundrum for analyzes of Tocqueville for more than two decades. Instead of focusing on the contradictions of his liberalism, however, Zunz suggests that Tocqueville developed a line of thought clearly established in his earlier work on democracy; for, in Tocqueville’s view, there was a democratic promise for French settlers in Algeria, especially those who had little access to land or capital in the Hexagon.
Within a few years Tocqueville to witness first-hand – and wrote one of his most cynical and seductive essays on – France’s audacious experiment with democracy in 1848 in his Recollections. Contributing to the drafting of the constitution of France’s Second Republic, Tocqueville turned once again to the US model. Though he failed to convince his colleagues of the merits of a bicameral consideration system, the constitution did include the separation of executive power, and a president elected by universal manhood suffrage, with the well-known decision that Napoleon’s nephew was elected head of state. In Zunz’s account, it was here, in the slow consolidation of power leading up to the most improbable of all historical repetitions – another Bonaparte! – that Tocqueville’s thinking on the democracy took its final turn. If he turned out to have a tragic view of modern democracy, it was not the result of observing the United States, participating in the disappointments of electoral politics, nor visiting Algeria, but of the resurgence of the Napoleonic empire. In the dark shadow of “democratic despotism”, Tocqueville pondered why the French had fought so many revolutions for liberty, only to hand themselves over to a despot. This questioning produced Tocqueville’s masterpiece, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.
Built on a career of teaching, editing and writing on Tocqueville and American history, Zunz’s book is accessible and erudite. The guiding thread in his story is Tocqueville’s discovery, practice and disappointment with democracy, but he also highlights Tocqueville’s self-description as a “liberal of a new kind” and a “liberal and nothing more”. It is here, in this silent coupling of liberalism and democracy, that the biography captures the spirit of Tocquevillian studies for the past forty years. For Zunz, this combination of liberalism and democracy would seem to animate what he refers to throughout the book as Tocqueville’s obsession with both equality and liberty. But the reader is also struck that for a man who “understood democracy”, the actual contours of what democracy and liberty meant in Tocqueville’s work remain obscure in this account. After all, when he set out to write the first volume of his work on liberty and equality in the US, with its focus on political institutions, he did not choose the title “Liberalism in America”. Rather, he studied a “democracy” in which “liberty was a positive act of will”. So there is ample evidence that Tocqueville’s democracy was a matter of government and a novel way of positing the question of how society should organize itself, either according to privilege or according to greater equality. Likewise, liberty in Tocqueville was double: while no doubt signaling some share of freedom from government, in the burgeoning democracies that he witnessed and admired, liberty also signified more thorough and effective self-government. Clearly this was an essential part of what he so regretted under Napoleon and his nephew: that the liberty to actively participate in governance had been confiscated. And it is this search for greater self-government in a society of equals that will hopefully drive work that seeks to understand democracy – as well as Tocqueville – in the decades to come.
Stephen W. Sawyer is the Ballantine-Leavitt Professor of History at the American University of Paris and Director of Publications for The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville and Tocqueville21
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