Sep 1, 1981
Alexis de Tocqueville: A Historical Appreciation
I. Introduction: The Unclassifiable Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) was one of the greatest, and perhaps the greatest, of the political thinkers and historical writers of the nineteenth century. The principal support of such a claim is the lasting power of his writing. Often during the twentieth century, in different places and on different occasions, the few books that Tocqueville wrote were rediscovered by people who thereafter became his respectful admirers. His reputation survives not only because of the excellence of his work but also because the history of the last hundred and fifty years as well as the evolving social conditions confirm the impression, again and again, that when we read him we are in the presence of a great mind whose judgment is virtually unerring, whose insight is often profound, and whose vision is startlingly applicable to the historical and social conditions of our own times.
In sum, Tocqueville is the premier thinker of the democratic age. One of his admirers in the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, ranked him among the three greatest political thinkers of all time, with Aristotle and Machiavelli. Yet Tocqueville is not very widely known. For one person who knows Tocqueville’s name there must be a hundred, if not a thousand, who know the name of Marx. Within his native France, historians and political thinkers devoted relatively little attention to him for almost a century after his death. The reason for this neglect was the customary prevalence of certain climates of opinion and of intellectual fashions; but there is another condition which, even at this time of writing, has been an obstacle to the universal recognition of Tocqueville’s importance. This condition is the unclassifiable nature of Tocqueville’s ideology and of his achievement. Was Tocqueville a conservative or a liberal? Was he a historian or a sociologist? Was he an aristocratic sceptic or a believing Catholic? These are questions about which there exists no intellectual or academic consensus to this day.
Was Tocqueville a Conservative or a Liberal?
Academicians’ categories are often inadequate because Tocqueville transcends them. Yet for the sake of the readers of Literature of Liberty I must, at this point, address myself to the first of these questions: was Tocqueville a conservative or a liberal? That his vision has been much more accurate than that of Karl Marx or other nineteenth-century radicals has been recognized on occasion; this comparison has been increasingly easy to prove. It is less often recognized that Tocqueville gains in comparison not only with utopians and radicals but with the great conservatives such as Burke or De Maistre or Donoso Cortés as well as with the great liberals such as Mill or Bagehot or Acton.
Even though the term “conservative” poses a certain difficulty (it was not applied to politics until after Napoleon, and certainly not in Burke’s lifetime), what separates Tocqueville from Burke and from his own contemporary conservatives may be summed up under three headings: religion, monarchy, liberty. Tocqueville did not believe that religion (and particularly the Roman Catholic religion) and democracy were incompatible, whereas for all of the great conservative thinkers (Burke being a partial exception) that incompability was their fundamental article of belief. Tocqueville, who regretted the end of the French Bourbon monarchy but who also saw that in the history of peoples continuity plays as much, if not greater, a role than does change, did not think that during the eighteenth century the divine right of kings mattered very much, whereas the conservatives believed that the democratic revolutions constituted a break with the entire order of the providential universe. Most important, the conservatives’ criticism of the principle of equality was often combined with their criticism of the principle of liberty; this was very different from the convictions of Tocqueville who, throughout his life, regarded liberty—and by no means in an abstract sense—as the most precious possession of persons and of peoples.
When, in 1835, Tocqueville became known by the publication of the first volume of Democracy in America, Liberals in France as well as in England recognized his talents. His friendship and correspondence with many of the English Liberals lasted till the very end of his life. There were, however, significant differences between his ideas and those of his Liberal contemporaries. In France he was acclaimed by Royer-Collard and by the doctrinaires; yet, with all of Tocqueville’s respect for Royer-Collard, he was not a typical doctrinaire, and he acted with independence of them throughout his public and political career. Tocqueville shared the doctrinaires’ judicious concern with the proper balance of equality and liberty; but he shared neither the individualist nor the capitalist preferences of the liberal successors of the doctrinaires, and he exhibited none of their indifference and occasional hostility to the Catholic Church and to its institutions. So far as English Liberals went, their ideas, even though often resting on English common sense, were—surprisingly enough—more theoretical and less empirical than those of the French Tocqueville whose thought and whose analysis of society were profoundly historical. Both the utilitarianism of the early Mill and the individualism of the later Mill were very different from Tocqueville’s thought. The latter saw that the principle of utility was unduly narrow, materialistic, and potentially enhancing the power of the state; he also saw that the nineteenth-century image of the autonomous individual was a chimera. Even Bagehot and Acton, the English Liberal thinkers closest to Tocqueville, differed from him. Bagehot who, like Tocqueville, placed a strong emphasis on the traditional and instinctive elements in those institutions that held the social order together, believed in the advisability of a restricted democracy; Tocqueville did not. Like Acton, Tocqueville believed in the primacy of the value of liberty over equality; unlike Acton, he did not consider freedom as a progressive element in history, suggesting (at least implicitly) the absence of restrictions.
Tocqueville’s Historical Vision: Realistic, Complex & Existential
Tocqueville was an aristocrat who came to believe that democracy was well-nigh inevitable; but the purpose of this conclusion was neither opportunism nor an accommodation to what seemed to him fatal and obvious. He viewed his own aristocratic past and the unfolding democratic present with detachment, denying neither aristocracy nor democracy. He was not the kind of aristocrat who chooses to become a democrat; and he saw in the coming of democracy more than a social or economic development: he thought that he detected in it the hand of God. “I cannot believe,” he once wrote,
that God has for several centuries been pushing two or three hundred men toward equality just to make them wind up under a Tiberian despotism. Verily, that wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Why He is drawing us toward democracy, I do not know; but embarked on a vessel that I did not build, I am at least trying to use it to gain the nearest port.
This passage contains the essence of Tocqueville’s historical vision. He believed that the movement toward democracy—which, in his view, had begun earlier than historians and people in general were accustomed to think—was the great overriding theme of the historical evolution of the Western, and perhaps even of the entire world. The structure of Tocqueville’s thought and his view of human nature differed entirely from those of the materialists and of his contemporary, Marx. Yet Tocqueville did not share the prevalent liberal view of history either, the one espoused and expressed by the great historian Lord Acton, which interpreted the history of mankind as essentially the unfolding of the history of liberty. Tocqueville’s view of democratic evolution was clear, but he was fully aware of its complex nature. The main element of its complexity was the relationship of its component, and often contradictory, elements of equality and liberty. His concentration on this subject would alone justify the recognition of Tocqueville as a latter-day Aristotle; yet Tocqueville, even more than his famous predecessor Montesquieu, knew that modern mass democracy is not comparable to the democracy of the Athenian city-state, that it is a new historical phenomenon. Tocqueville’s political thinking was realistic and existential, not abstract and theoretical.
II. Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’
Tocqueville’s Family Background and Early Life
Alexis Charles Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805 of an ancient noble family of Normandy, whose title and land dated from the eleventh century. His parents had barely escaped the guillotine, a fate not avoided by his maternal great-grandfather, the famous political and legal thinker Lamoignon de Malesherbes (1721–1794). Perhaps in consequence of these harrowing experiences (the hair of Tocqueville’s father had prematurely turned white at the age of twenty-one) the family life of the Tocquevilles had none of the airy worldliness of the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century. The Tocquevilles were closely knit, religious, and affectionate, as well as protective of their youngest of three sons, who, in turn, maintained his love and his respect for his parents throughout his life. This respect was not only filial but also intellectual. His appreciation and his understanding of the royalist and traditionalist convictions of his father went hand in hand with his defense and his understanding of the democratic evolution of the world.
When the July Revolution of 1830 put an end to the rule of the last Bourbon King of France, Tocqueville was twenty-five years old. Indeed, his twenty-fifth birthday fell on the very day when Charles X left Versailles forever. At dawn on the next day Tocqueville saw a melancholy historical scene which moved him to tears: the cortege carrying the King and his family into exile.
His father, Hervé Clérel de Tocqueville (1772–1856), had been an important official in the last Bourbon regime. Most of his friends were convinced legitimists, partisans of the royalty: Tocqueville was not. He had no illusions about the bourgeois regime of Louis Philippe, but neither did he harbor any illusions about the possibilities of a Bourbon restoration. After some soul-searching he took the oath of allegiance to the new government. But his restless mind was already looking ahead. Less than a month after the upheaval in July, and less than two months before he took the oath, he wrote to a friend: “I have long had the greatest desire to visit North America: I shall go there to see what a great republic is like; my only fear is lest, during that time, they establish one in France.” He and his close friend Gustave de Beaumont managed, not without difficulty, an assignment from the government to study the American prison system; but the deeper purpose of their journey to America and the scope of their interest were far more spacious than that.
They left in early April 1831, landed in the United States by mid-May, and returned to France nine months later. The products of their extensive (and at times dangerous) travels were four separate works: a study of the American penitentiary system (On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, 1833) a romantic novel by Beaumont about slavery in America (Marie, or Slavery in the United States, 1835); and the two volumes of Tocqueville’s own Democracy in America, of which the first was published in 1835 and the second in 1840.
The Genius of ‘Democracy in America’
Democracy in America is the great, pre-eminent book about the United States in particular, and about democracy in general. Its immediate success derived from its inherent qualities, and perhaps even more from the contemporary state of affairs: in the 1830s the United States was the only well-established democratic republic in the world. This kind of uniqueness was alone sufficient to stimulate interest in the book’s description and analysis. We glimpse the unequalled merit of Democracy in America when we consider that Tocqueville’s work has remained interesting, valuable, enduring, and thought-provoking long afterwards, well after the United States had ceased to be the solitary example of a democracy. Democracy in America has stood the test of time. This is astonishing when we bear in mind how the institutions of the United States and how the composition of its population have evolved into something very different from what they were one hundred and fifty years ago.
In this encyclopedic and philosophical work, which covers nearly all of the institutions and characteristics of the American government and the American people, some of Tocqueville’s observations and conclusions should have inevitably become outdated. Yet such instances are remarkably few. Perhaps the only one worth noting is Tocqueville’s description of the power of the presidency and, indirectly, of the powers of the federal government. In Tocqueville’s time, these powers seemed weaker than the powers of Congress and of the states. What is remarkable is that this youthful foreign aristocrat should have had such an acute and profound comprehension of the American character. True, he had prepared himself well for his American journey by extensive reading; he knew English, and had had, for some time, a particular interest in the laws and institutions of England. Yet it remains a rare occurrence that the best and most enduring book about a nation should be written by a foreigner.
The reason for this exceptional feat lies in Tocqueville’s singular genius. This singularity can be seen in the method, the style, and the philosophy of Democracy in America; but the unity of this philosophy, method, and style was not bound up with the subject of this first work. It reappears in Tocqueville’s other books, written fifteen or twenty years later and dealing with different subjects, from different motives.
There are several English editions of Democracy in America, of which the two best ones are (a) the original Francis Bowen translation, all of its nineteenth-century Victorianisms of style notwithstanding; its most recent paperback edition (Knopf-Vintage, New York, 1961) contains in Vol. 2 an extensive bibliography of all editions of Démocratie before 1945; (b) the Mayer-Lerner edition of the George Lawrence translation (New York, 1966).
Consult the Bibliography for additional translations and full citations.
The First Volume of ‘Democracy’: the Structure of Tocqueville’s Mind
The first volume of Democracy in America consists of two parts: the first, and shorter one is a description of American self-government and political institutions; the second is a description and analysis of democratic government and majority rule in the United States. The first part is composed of eight chapters, the second of ten: but most of these chapters, especially the most important ones, are divided into numerous subchapters, and it is within these subchapters that Tocqueville’s method—or, more precisely, the structure of his thought—is apparent. These subchapters are short, often hardly more than a page each. They consist of paragraphs that seldom run to more than a few lines. This kind of composition reflects the author’s personality. Tocqueville’s mind was quick, restless, and impatient. Yet the working of these qualities enhances, rather than diminishes, the value of what he has to say, for the compressed wisdom of his generalizations and the quiet profundity of his insights make them memorable. Here are a few examples:
About the freedom of the press: “I admit that I do not feel toward freedom of the press that complete and instantaneous love which one accords to things by their nature supremely good. I love it more from considering the evils it prevents than on account of the good it does.”
About democracy and envy: “One must not blind oneself to the fact that democratic institutions most successfully develop sentiments of envy in the human heart. This is not because they provide the means for everybody to rise to the level of everybody else but because these means are constantly proving inadequate in the hands of those using them. Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely.”
About universal suffrage: “Those who consider universal suffrage a guarantee of the excellence of the resulting choice suffer under a complete delusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”
About the budget and costs of democratic government: “There is in democratic societies a stirring without precise aim; some sort of prevailing feverish excitement finds expression in innovations of all sorts, and innovations are almost always expensive.”
About the enduring benefits of democracy: “The vices and weaknesses of democratic government are easy to see; they can be proved by obvious facts, whereas its salutary influence is exercised in an imperceptible and almost secret way. Its defects strike one at first glance, but its good qualities are revealed only in the long run.”
About the danger of majority rule: “My greatest complaint against democratic government as organized in the United States is not, as many Europeans think, its weakness, but rather its irresistible strength…. I am not asserting that at the present time in America there are frequent acts of tyranny. I do say that one can find no guarantee against it there and that the reasons for the government’s moderation must be sought in circumstances and in mores rather than in the laws.”
About the races in the United States: “When they have abolished slavery, the moderns still have to eradicate three much more intangible and tenacious prejudices: the prejudice of the Master, the prejudice of the race, and the prejudice of the white.”
The most famous, and the most often quoted passage in Democracy in America is that of the conclusion of the first volume, about America and Russia. “There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end….
All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived. The American struggles against the obstacles that nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its arms. The conquests of the American are therefore gained by the plowshare; those of the Russian by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.
Tocqueville on the Nature of Democracy
What is the principal theme of Democracy in America? It is that the American example is a living illustration of the possibility of a more-or-less orderly democracy, and that consequently both the conservative and the radical European views of democracy ought to be revised. Tocqueville’s conservative contemporaries were wrong in believing that democracy inevitably leads to anarchy and chaos: the opposite is rather true: the universal acceptance of majority rule leads to lowness in the movements of thought, to conformity, and to the danger not of anarchy but of tyranny exercised by the majority. On the other side, the radicals were wrong in believing that the establishment of majority rule would suffice to ensure the freedom and the happiness of people: these depend far more on the workings of certain laws, habits and beliefs, including religion: in short, the character of peoples influences their political institutions rather than the reverse. In the first volume of Democracy in America Tocqueville gradually rises to this theme, as the book advances from a description of American institutions to an analysis of American democratic society and of its problems.
The first volume was published in 1835 in Paris. Against the scepticism of its publisher, it was an instant success. Alexis de Tocqueville became famous overnight: his work and his wisdom were praised in many quarters, foremost among the conservative liberals who formed what was perhaps the last great generation of French political thinkers in the 1820s and 1830s. Because of their judicious acclaim Tocqueville was then, and has been often since, classed among this group, known by the somewhat misleading adjective of doctrinaires. Let me repeat, however, that he transcended such categories, for many reasons, one of them being his awareness that the world was facing a new development of such scope and extent that the existing political categories were no longer sufficient; as he himself wrote, “a new science of politics was necessary for a new world.”
The Second Volume of ‘Democracy’
The composition of the second volume of Democracy in America took twice as long as the first. Published in 1840, it was less of a success. Unlike the first, it received a number of severely critical reviews. Today we can see that the second volume is even more important than the first, more timely in its details, and richer in its contents.
We must note, first of all, that the title of the entire work was as accurate as it was honest. De la démocratie en Amérique—About democracy in America—is not, as most people assume, a book principally about America; it is a book principally about democracy. And in this respect there is a subtle but significant difference in emphasis between the two volumes; while it may be said that the main direction of Tocqueville’s interest in the first volume is America even more than it is democracy, in the second volume it is democracy even more than it is America. The connection between the two volumes is none the less organic. Already toward the end of the first volume Tocqueville had written:
Those who, having read this book, should imagine that in writing it I am urging all nations with a democratic social state to imitate the laws and mores of the Anglo-Americans would be making a great mistake; they must have paid more attention to the form than to the substance of my thought. My aim has been to show, by the American example, that laws, and more especially mores can allow a democratic people to remain free. But I am very far from thinking that we should follow the example of American democracy and imitate the means that it has used to attain this end, for I am well aware of the influence of the nature of a country and of antecedent events on political institutions, and I should regard it as a great misfortune for mankind if liberty were bound always and in all places to have the same features.
The Second Volume of ‘Democracy’: The Structure of Tocqueville’s Mind
In the second volume of De la démocratie en Amérique there are no subchapters. The volume has four parts, each of which consists of twenty or more short chapters (except for Part IV, a kind of conclusion, which has but eight). Throughout the second volume, however, all the terse, lucid, and aphoristic characteristics of the first volume appear again. The titles alone of some of these chapters suggest the form of Tocqueville’s thought: “Why the Americans Show More Aptitude and Taste for General Ideas than their English Forefathers.” “How Religion in the United States Makes Use of Democratic Instincts.” “How American Democracy Has Modified the English Language.” “Some Characteristics of Historians in Democratic Times.” “Why Some Americans Display Enthusiastic Forms of Spirituality.” “How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry.” “Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare.” “Why the Ideas of Democratic Peoples about Government Naturally Favor the Concentration of Political Power.” “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.”
The succinctness of the second volume of Democracy in America is even more pronounced than in the first. The chapter “Some Characteristics of Historians in Democratic Times”, for example, consists of forty-eight sentences in fifteen paragraphs; yet many of these paragraphs contain a particular argument so condensed and profound that it would be sufficient for an entire book, indeed, for the kind of book that could establish the reputation of a thinker. “I am very well convinced,” Tocqueville writes,
that even among democratic nations the genius, the vices, or the virtues of certain individuals retard or accelerate the natural current of a people’s history; but causes of this secondary and fortuitous nature are infinitely more varied, more concealed, more complex, less powerful, and consequently less easy to trace, in periods of equality than in ages of aristocracy, when the task of the historian is simply to detach from the mass of general events the particular influence of one man or of a few men…
…M. de Lafayette says somewhere in his Memoirs that the exaggerated system of general causes affords surprising consolations to second-rate statesmen. I will add that its effects are not less consolatory to second-rate historians; it can always furnish a few mighty reasons to extricate them from the most difficult part of their work, and it indulges the indolence or incapacity of their minds while it confers upon them the honors of deep thinking…
…Those who write in the democratic age have another more dangerous tendency…. To their minds it is not enough to show what events have occurred: they wish to show that events could not have occurred otherwise. They take a nation arrived at a certain stage of its history and affirm that it could not but follow the track that brought it thither. It is easier to make such an assertion than to show how the nation might have adopted a better course…
…If this doctrine of necessity, which is so attractive to those who write history in democratic ages, passes from authors to their readers till it infects the whole mass of the community and gets possession of the public mind, it will soon paralyze the activity of modern society and reduce Christians to the level of the Turks.
Moreover, I would observe that such doctrines are peculiarly dangerous at the period at which we have arrived. Our contemporaries are only too prone to doubt of human free will…
Concluding Chapter of ‘Democracy’
Probably the most important part of the second volume of Democracy in America is its concluding chapters. Tocqueville’s argument here rises to its highest level; and these chapters also reveal a subtle and important change in his mind. In “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear” Tocqueville begins by saying that during his travels in the United States he became aware of the relatively novel danger of democratic despotism; “a more accurate examination of the subject, and five years of further meditation, have not diminished my fears, but have changed their object.” He no longer dwells on the relative weakness of the central power in a democracy; rather the contrary. “If despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days,” it would be wholly different from despotism in the past, “it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.” “(The) same principle of equality which facilitates despotism tempers its rigor.”
“I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything else that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories…the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate…” “The first thing that strikes the observer is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives…”
…Above this race of men stands an immense tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?…
…I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people…
It will appear from the above that Tocqueville foresaw the tendency which many social and political thinkers a century later were still unwilling to recognize: the possibility that the age of aristocratic society and government would be succeeded by bureaucratic society and government rather than by a true democracy, even though Tocqueville did not use the term “bureaucracy.” In any event, the last sentence of his magisterial work sums up his historical and political vision: “The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”
III. Tocqueville’s Middle Years and His ‘Souvenirs’
We have seen that the publication of the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835 suddenly made the young Tocqueville a public figure. What followed were thirteen superficially uneventful years, the middle period of Tocqueville’s life. I write “superficially,” because beneath the external signs of an honorably progressing career there were evidences of frequent disillusionments, depressions, and torment.
Between 1835 and 1848, the thirtieth and the forty-third years of his life, Tocqueville was elected to the Chamber of Deputies (1839) and to the French Academy (1841). He travelled in England, Ireland, Algeria, Switzerland and Germany. He published the second volume of Democracy in America (1840), and a number of minor writings; and his Democracy was being translated and published in many languages across Europe and in the Americas. In 1835 he married a middle-class Englishwoman from a respectable family who had served as a governess in France for years; Marie Mottley (1796–1864) was several years older and several inches taller than her husband, an earnest and intelligent woman with a difficult temperament, who bore him no children.
Tocqueville suffered from a pulmonary condition, and his lung disease grew progressively worse through the years. He was now a respected public personage, but not a successful political figure. He took part in the political life of France out of a sense of duty rather than out of ambition. He wanted to help channel the democratic tide in the direction of decency and order. Many people disliked the serious and Olympian tone of his utterances; he seemed like Aristides the Just in the heedless democracy of Athens. On the evidence of his contemporaries we may add that his speeches in the Chamber were unduly learned, sometimes lengthy, and delivered without much oratorical talent.
Tocqueville’s Prescient Speech & the 1848 Revolution
Yet there was at least one of Tocqueville’s speeches that made him famous. On 29 January 1848 he spoke in the Chamber, accurately predicting that a revolution was brewing. “Gentlemen,” he said, “my profound conviction is that we are lulling ourselves to sleep over an active volcano…” “When I consider what has been, at different times and epochs of history among different peoples, the effective reason why ruling classes have been ruined, I note the various events and men and accidental or superficial causes, but believe me, the real cause, the effective one, that makes men lose power is that they have become unworthy to exercise it.”
Consider the old Monarchy, gentlemen. It was stronger than you, stronger because of its origin; it was better supported than you are by ancient customs, old mores and old beliefs; it was stronger than you, and yet it has fallen into dust. Why did it fall? Do you think it was due to one particular man, the deficit, the Oath of the Tennis Court, La Fayette, or Mirabeau? No, gentlemen, there is another cause: the class that was ruling then had, through its indifference, selfishness and vice, became incapable and unworthy of ruling…
He implored his colleagues in the Chamber to change the spirit of the government, because another great revolution was around the corner. His prophetic speech was received with apathy and ridicule. What Tocqueville had foretold came about less than a month later with the February Revolution of 1848.
Tocqueville and the Turbulent Years of Politics
The memory of this speech, together with the reputation of Tocqueville’s intelligent advocacy of an orderly democracy, led naturally to his leadership of the committee that was to write the constitution of the Second French Republic. During the deliberations a second, short but bloody insurrection in June 1848 turned the tide of sentiment and opinion more conservative. In December 1848 Louis-Napoleon was elected President of France. For the next two years he governed with the support of the Assembly, and in June of 1849 he appointed Tocqueville Foreign Minister, and Tocqueville served for five months. Tocqueville performed his duties with much energy and intelligence during a difficult and eventful period of French and European history. The fires of the 1848 revolutions had not yet died out; there was a war of independence in Hungary; a war in Northern Italy; French troops were sent to Rome to crush the republican rebellion there and to restore the Pope to his see. In October 1849 Louis-Napoleon dismissed the conservative-liberal cabinet of which Tocqueville was a prominent member. He did not return to political life again.
There was worse to come. Tocqueville accurately foresaw the political future: Louis-Napoleon would be supported as dictator by the majority of the people; his regime would be a new kind of democratic Caesarism. Tocqueville had only contempt for the Left radicals who in June 1848 had attempted the first socialist revolution in France; but he immediately realized that the fear-ridden reaction against the Left, equally contemptible, was a new phenomenon consonant with the development of democracy. It meant the appearance of a new radical Right, supported by masses of people out of fear of revolution and out of their sentiments of nationalism and respectability. “The insane fear of socialism,” Tocqueville, this opponent of socialism, told the English liberal, Naussau Senior, “throws the bourgeois headlong into the arms of despotism…the democrats have served the cause of the absolutists. But now that the weakness of the Red party has been proved, people will regret the price at which their enemy has been put down.”
It would be wrong to think that during the political phase of Tocqueville’s career he wrote little. His literary dedication was exceptionally strong. But the largest part of his writings was unpublished after his death, and a good part remains unpublished even today. His friend Beaumont later said that “for one volume he published he wrote ten; and the notes he cast aside as intended only for himself would have served many writers as copy for the printer.” Apart from his shorter writings and speeches in the 1840s he kept up a very large correspondence. To put down his thoughts on paper, whether in letters to friends or only for himself, remained a necessity for Tocqueville throughout his life.
Purpose of Tocqueville’s ‘Souvenirs’
Between 1849 and 1852, while the devolution of the French parliamentary democracy to the imperial regime of Napoleon III was progressing, Tocqueville’s mind and body were racked with suffering. The cold and damp winters in the Tocqueville chateau in Normandy were bad for his lungs; and he complained that his state of mind was painfully agitated and depressed. In 1850 his doctors advised him to spend a winter farther south; they also said that he ought to occupy his mind with other than political concerns. In Italy, at Sorrento, he began to write the Souvenirs, his recollections of the turbulence of the revolutionary years 1848–1849. He did this for his eyes only, one of the reasons for this discretion being his reluctance to make public the often caustic portraits of some of his friends and political associates. His manuscript was eventually published by his great-nephew thirty-four years after Tocqueville’s death.
There are many editions of the Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, the best of which is the New York, 1949 one. The Old Regime and the French Revolution exists in a Doubleday Anchor paperback (New York, 1955); the other Doubleday Anchor paperback, of 1959, is entitled Tocqueville: The European Revolution and Correspondence with Gobineau, introduced and translated by this writer: this volume contains unfinished portions of Tocqueville’s projected second volume of the French Revolution as well as his correspondence with his former secretary Gobineau. Memoir, Letters and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, collected by his friend Beaumont, contains many of Tocqueville’s letters in English; this edition was published in Cambridge and in New York in 1862. A number of English translations of the work of Tocqueville and Beaumont are listed in theBibliography.
The Souvenirs are perhaps the best of all possible introductions to Tocqueville’s mind. They are obviously the most personal of his published books. Again, we are in the presence of an extraordinary work, because of the character and the genius of its author. Again, its contents demonstrate the unique, and uncategorizable, character of Tocqueville’s achievement. The Souvenirs transcend the limits of what is called a memoir or a history. They are a kind of auto-history, a history written in the first person singular, but not because of their author’s dominant preoccupation with himself. The book is a participant’s history, springing from the realization that history is participant knowledge par excellence. In this book, as also in some of his other writings, Tocqueville demonstrates—without, however, arguing the philosophical point—the inadequacy of the Cartesian and scientific separation of the universe into object and subject, the observer from the matter observed.
Tocqueville’s purpose in the Souvenirs was to describe some of the things and some of the people he saw in 1848 and 1849—or, rather, some of the things he saw that he saw. He begins the book with this kind of avowal. “Now that I am out of the stream of public life and the uncertain state of my health does not even allow me to follow any consecutive study,”
I have for some time in my retreat turned my thoughts to myself, or rather to those events of the recent past in which I played a part or stood as witness. The best use for my leisure seems to be to go back over those events, to describe the men I saw taking part in them, and, if I can, to catch in this way and engrave on my memory those confused features that make up the uncertain physiognomy of my time.
Along with this decision of mine goes another to which I shall be equally faithful: these recollections are to be a mental relaxation for myself and not a work of literature. They are written for myself alone. These pages are to be a mirror, in which I can enjoy seeing my contemporaries and myself, not a painting for the public to view. My best friends are not to know about them, for I wish to keep my freedom to describe myself and them without flattery. I want to uncover the secret motives that made us act, them and myself as well as other men; and when I have understood these, to state them. In a word, I want to express myself honestly in these memoirs, and it is therefore necessary that they be completely secret.
He returns to this theme of his Souvenirs later in the work. “I do not want to write a history of the 1848 Revolution. I am merely trying to retrace my own actions, thoughts and impressions during that time.” And again, after meditating on the difficulty of describing human motives and purposes: “Nevertheless I want to try and discover myself in the midst of this labyrinth. For it is only right that I should take the same liberties with myself as I have taken, and will often take again, with so many others.”
Tocqueville’s Portraits in the ‘Souvenirs’
These “liberties” are essentials in his gallery of portraits. Here are a few examples:
About his friend Dufaure who did not come to the Chamber of Deputies on 24 February 1848, the first day of the revolution: “Weakness was certainly not the reason, for I have subsequently seen him very calm and unmoved in much more dangerous circumstances. I think that in his concern for his family he must have wanted to put them in safety outside Paris first. His private and his public virtues, for he had both in great measure, did not march in step, for the former always came first; we saw things go that way more than once. In any case, I cannot count that as a great crime. Virtues of any sort are rare enough, and we can ill afford to quibble about their type and relative importance.”
About the President of the Chamber: “He got easily excited over the smallest matter, so you can imagine what state he was in then. I found this excellent man—for such he was in spite of well-meaning bits of trickery, pious fibs and all the other petty sins that a timid heart and vacillating mind could suggest to an honest soul—I found him, I say, walking about in his room, a prey to strong emotions. M. Sauzet had handsome but undistinguished features, the dignity of a cathedral verger and a large fat body with very short arms. When he was restless or upset, as he nearly always was, he would waggle his little arms convulsively in all directions like a drowning man. His manner, while we talked, was strange; he walked about, stopped and then sat down with one foot tucked under his fat buttocks, as he usually did in moments of great agitation; then he got up and sat down again without coming to any conclusion. It was a great misfortune for the House of Orleans to have a respectable man of that sort in charge of the Chamber on such a day; a bold rogue would have been more use.”
In the midst of the upheaval the two sons of Louis-Philippe appeared in the Chamber: “The Count of Paris had a boy’s thoughtlessness combined with a prince’s precocious impassivity. Beside them stood the Duke of Nemours, buttoned up in his uniform, erect, stiff, cold and silent: a post painted to look like a lieutenant-general. In my view he was the only man in real danger that day. All the time that I watched him exposed to this peril, his courage remained the same: taciturn, sterile and uninspired. Courage of that nature was more likely to discourage and dishearten his friends than to impress the enemy; its only use would be to enable him to die honorably, if die he must.”
About Ledru-Rollin, the leader of the radical party: “At that time, the nation saw Ledru-Rollin as the bloody image of the Terror. They regarded him as the evil and Lamartine as the good genius, mistakenly in both cases. Ledru was nothing but a great sensual sanguine boy, with no principles and hardly any ideas; he had no true courage of mind or heart, but he was also free of malice, for by nature he wished all the world well and was incapable of cutting an enemy’s throat, except perhaps as an historical reminiscence or to please his friends.”
On 24 June 1848 a committee of the Assembly appointed Tocqueville as a commissioner, one of a group including the deputies Cormenin, Crémieux and Goudchaux; their job was to move from barricade to barricade, to encourage the National Guards fighting the battle of Paris. Tocqueville’s portrait of his colleagues are too long to cite here, they are full of acute but good-natured insights. Here, nevertheless, is his summary: “I have always found it interesting to follow the involuntary effects of fear in the minds of men of intelligence. Fools show their fear grossly in all its nakedness, but the others know how to cover it with a veil of such fine and delicately woven, small, convincing deceits that there is a pleasure in contemplating this ingenious labour of the intelligence.”
Towards the end of the uprising Thiers meets General Lamoricière who won the battle of Paris:“M. Thiers came up and threw his arms round Lamoricière’s neck, telling him he was a hero. I could not help smiling at that sight, for they did not love each other at all, but danger is like wine in making all men sentimental.”
About the Assembly near the end of the uprising: “The President called the Assembly together only at long intervals for short periods; and he was right to do so, for Assemblies are like children in that idleness never fails to make them do or say a lot of silly things. Each time the sitting was resumed, he himself told us all that had been learned for certain, during the adjournment. This President, as we know, was Sénard, a well-known lawyer from Rouen, and a courageous man; however, the daily comedy of the bar had from his youth led him to contract such an inveterate habit of acting that he had lost the faculty of truthfully expressing his real impressions, if by chance he had any. Inevitably he would add some turgid phrases of his own to the acts of courage he was narrating, and when he expressed the emotion which he, I think, really felt, in sepulchral tones, with a trembling voice and a sort of tragedian’s hiccup, he even then seemed to be acting. Never were the ridiculous and the sublime so close, for the deeds were sublime and the narrator ridiculous.”
Tocqueville’s Historical Sense
Space does not permit my adding Tocqueville’s two or three portraits of Louis-Philippe, masterpieces of historical and of psychological description though they are. Like those just quoted, they show their author’s brilliant talent for depicting human beings and their characters. This ability rarely comes out in Democracy in America, where Tocqueville deals principally with institutions and society as a whole, rather than with individuals. A second feature worth observing is that each of Tocqueville’s portraits ends with, indeed, is summed up by an epigram about human nature itself. This is not only the result of intelligent artistry or of the French style. The Souvenirs embody Tocqueville’s deep understanding of human nature—the main requirement of a great historian. Thus it is not only the subject matter of theSouvenirs but the very substance of their author’s thought which is historical. The counterpart of Tocqueville’s great work about democracy in America is his great work about the French and European revolutions twenty years later. This progression may be superficially—but only superficially—seen as a shift from the subject of institutions to the subject of men and their thoughts, or from political science and sociology to history. In reality, Tocqueville’s entire oeuvre rests on a consistent philosophy, which is fundamentally historical.
Here is how Tocqueville saw the first days of the revolution of 1848:
As I left my bedroom…the 24th of February, I first met the cook who had been out; the good woman was quite beside herself and poured out a sorrowful rigmarole from which I could understand nothing but that the government was having the poor people massacred. I went down at once, and as soon as I had set foot in the street I could for the first time scent revolution in the air; the middle of the street was empty; the shops were not open; there were no carriages, or people walking; one heard none of the usual street vendors’ cries; little frightened groups of neighbors talked by the doors in lowered voices; anxiety or anger disfigured every face. I met one of the National Guard hurrying along, rifle in hand; with an air of tragedy. I spoke to him but could learn nothing save that the government was massacring the people (to which he added that the National Guard would know how to put that right). It was always the same refrain which, of course, explained nothing to me. I knew the vices of the July government all too well, and cruelty was not among them. I consider it to have been one of the most corrupt, but least bloodthirsty, that have ever existed, and I repeat the rumor only to show how such rumors help revolutions along.
The ‘Souvenirs’ & Tocqueville’s Philosophy of History
The Souvenirs are more than an historical account. They contain the principles of Tocqueville’s historical philosophy. We have seen that Tocqueville had predicted the coming of the revolution of 1848. He had made an even more trenchant prediction in October 1847 which he decided to quote in the beginning of his Souvenirs. “The time is coming,” he had written,
when the country will again be divided between two great parties. The French Revolution, which abolished all privileges, and destroyed all exclusive rights, did leave one, that of property. The holders of property must not delude themselves about the strength of their position, or suppose that, because it has so far nowhere been surmounted, the right to property is an insurmountable barrier; for our age is not like any other…Soon the political struggle will be between the Haves and the Have-nots; property will be the great battlefield; and the main political questions will turn on the more or less profound modifications of the rights of property owners that are to be made…
In this respect, as in so many others, Tocqueville was ahead of Marx and of the socialist thinkers after him. Unlike them, however, Tocqueville did not for a moment believe that the struggle between the Haves and the Have-nots would be the culmination of the history of mankind. He did not believe in Economic Man. Tocqueville did not think that the coming revolution would be anything but another act in the intermittent drama of violent shocks whereby the cause of equality was advanced in France by different people at different times. Already in the second volume of Democracy in America Tocqueville made the startling proposition that great revolutions were bound to become rare. In 1848, in the midst of the fighting, he remarked how there was something brummagem and make-believe in this revolution:
…there was absolutely no grandeur in this one, for there was no touch of the truth about it. We French, Parisians especially, gladly mingle literary and theatrical reminiscences with our most serious demonstrations. This often creates the impression that our feelings are false, whereas in fact they are only clumsily tricked out. In this case the quality of imitation was obvious…It was a time when everybody’s imagination had been colored by the crude pigments with which Lamartine daubed his Girondins. The men of the first revolution were still alive in everybody’s mind, their deeds and their words fresh in the memory. And everything I saw…was plainly stamped with the imprint of such memories; the whole time I had the feeling that we had staged a play about the French Revolution, rather than that we were continuing it.
Before that riotous day he wrote: “Nowhere did I see the seething unrest I had witnessed in 1830, when the whole city reminded me of one vast boiling cauldron. This time it was not a matter of over throwing the government, but simply letting it fall.” Throughout the Souvenirs Tocqueville insists on the marked differences between the revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848; and at the same time on the frequently misleading and falsifying influence of the memories of these revolutions on the minds of all kinds of people, including Louis-Philippe and himself. More remarkable still, on occasion Tocqueville is able to distinguish—and he is driven by his honesty to describe—the differences between his impression of certain events when he first experienced them, and the sometimes dissimilar impressions that came to his mind later and the conclusions he drew from them.
Tocqueville’s Historical Genius in the ‘Souvenirs’
In sum, the Souvenirs are not only an incomparable account of the revolutionary year 1848–49 in France and a set of clues to his personal character; they are not only excellent illustrations of Tocqueville’s historical talent; they also give us his view of history:
For my part, I hate all those absolute systems that make the events of history depend on great first causes linked together by the chain of fate and thus succeed, so to speak, in banishing men from the history of the human race. Their boasted breath seems to me narrow, and their mathematical exactness false. I believe, pacethe writers who find these sublime theories to feed their vanity and lighten their labors, that many important historical facts can be explained only by accidental circumstances, while many others are inexplicable; and lastly, that chance, or rather the concatenation of secondary causes, which we call by that name because we can’t sort them all out, is a very important element in all that we see taking place on the world’s stage. But I am firmly convinced that chance can do nothing unless the ground has been prepared in advance. Antecedent facts, the nature of institutions, turns of mind and the state of mores are the materials from which chance composes those unexpected events that surprise and terrify us…
IV. Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution
While he was writing his Souvenirs, during the winter of 1850–51 in Sorrento, the idea for a book on Napoleon arose in Tocqueville’s restless mind. He began to compose his first notes even though he was ill and weighted down by the gloomiest thoughts about the future of France. By December 1852 his mind had seized upon a different plan. He would write a book describing the main features of the French Revolution and include Napoleon. Because of his illness he was again advised to move away from Normandy, at least for a time. He and Madame de Tocqueville found a country house near Tours. A fortunate circumstance attended him there: he was able to search through the provincial archives in Tours, where he was assisted by the excellent archivist Charles de Grandmaison. Tocqueville now extended further the scope of his projected work. He would deal not only with the French Revolution and with Napoleon but with the origins of the Revolution. He immersed himself more and more in that subject, which became the first volume of a projected two-volume work. Again the title was precise:L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution. It was published in June 1856; it received a critical acclaim not dissimilar from that of the first volume of Democracy in America twenty-one years before.
‘L’Ancien Régime’ and Tocqueville’s Powers as a Historian
The Old Regime and the French Revolution is the most conspicuous example of Tocqueville’s powers as a historian. The writing is of the same high quality as that of his earlier works and his philosophy is of course unchanged. Yet two new features are worth noting. One is the evidence of Tocqueville’s talent for archival research—that is, his knack of finding what is significant, illustrative, vivid, and telling in all kinds of materials. The other new feature is his individual style of historiography. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution Tocqueville’s method is more topical than it is chronological. He is interested in why as well as in how things happened; and the why is often wrapped up in the how. As we found apt illustrations in his chapter titles before, so we may learn about the cast of his thought from these:
“How the chief and ultimate aim of the Revolution was not, as used to be thought, to overthrow religious and to weaken political authority in France.”
“Why feudalism had come to be more detested in France than in any other country.”
“How administrative centralization was an institution of the old regime and not, as is often thought, a creation of the Revolution or of the Napoleonic period.”
“How the desire for reforms took precedence of the desire for freedom.”
“How certain practices of the central power completed the revolutionary education of the masses.”
‘L’Ancien Régime’s’ Theme of Historical Continuity
And so on. The main theme of the book is that many of the practices of the old regime, foremost among them administrative centralization, were responsible for the actual ills as well as the restlessness that plagued France and the French people before 1789. The emphasis on these origins of the French Revolution was something very new at the time. Yet the Old Regime is not a thesis-history; Tocqueville knew very well that great events are seldom the results of a single string of causes. One of the main achievements of Tocqueville the historian is his revision of many standard notions about the origins of the Revolution. It is not true that the revolution brought about a radically new kind of government: the vice of modern democratic rule, excessive centralization, had begun under the old regime. It is not true that royal abuses provoked the outbreak of the revolt: violence broke out where royal power proved the mildest, and counter-revolution was to rise in the west of France, where the feudal rules had lingered on longest. It could not be denied that in 1788–89 there was a noble, generous, virile spirit in the air; on the other hand there was much pretense, vanity, and opportunism. “Une regle rigide, une pratique molle”: rigid rules, and weak enforcement marked the character of the old regime. The clergy was neither weak nor corrupt: “I began to study the old society with many prejudices against the clergy; I finished it full of respect.” The revolutionary government adopted the worst administrative habits of the old regime, without recognizing that in this matter, as well as in many others, continuity proved to be even stronger than change.
“It is not my purpose,” Tocqueville wrote in his forward, “to write a history of the French Revolution; that has been done already, and so ably, that it sould be folly on my part to think of covering the ground again. In this book I shall study, rather, the background and the nature of the Revolution.”
Tocqueville’s Historical Genius: Transcending Political History
We saw earlier that Tocqueville transcends ideological and academic categories; as is the wont of genius, his spirit also transcended his own times. Tocqueville, who is all too often described as an admirable nineteenth-century thinker, a conservative liberal of a time and place now hopelessly remote, possessed a mind which had both eighteenth– and twentieth-century characteristics. His writings—if only by the fine clarity of his prose—bear many of the marks of the eighteenth century, when history was part and parcel of literature, in the broad and honorific sense. The lucidity, the economy, the aphoristic quality, and the symmetrical structure of many of his chapters puts Tocqueville in the company of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Gibbon. In these respects he has more in common with them than with the professional historians of the nineteenth century. Nor does his view of the nature of history accord with that of the nineteenth century. To him history is not a science possessing an ascertainable method. His view of history, based on his understanding of human nature, is akin, rather, to that of the few independent thinkers of the twentieth century who regard the application of scientific method to human affairs as unworkable and unduly restrictive of meaning.
A generation after Tocqueville’s death the French critic Émile Faguet wrote that the task which Tocqueville “set himself was to penetrate beneath accidental history to solid history, or beneath history to the physiology of peoples.” From this correct analysis Faguet, however, deduced the wrong conclusion: that Tocqueville was a sociologist rather than a historian. Yet Faguet missed the key to Tocqueville’s historiographical talents. When Faguet wrote, more than eighty years ago, the texture of history had not yet changed. At that time it seemed still reasonable to concentrate on the history of the politically conscious classes; history was past politics and politics present history. Since then, it has become obvious that given the social and democratic character of our age the requirements of history-writing must change; it is no longer reasonable to concentrate exclusively on the actions of the leading protagonists of the politically active classes and separate what Faguet called “surface” history from what lies “beneath” it. This Tocqueville already knew. The importance of the Old Regime and the French Revolution is not only that it is an extraordinarily enlightening and instructive interpretation of the French Revolution; it is also an extraordinarily instructive new type of history.
Tocqueville’s Moral History of the Human Heart & Mind
Tocqueville implicitly and, at times, explicitly refutes many of the dogmas of modern professional history writing. He is not only among the earliest to note that political history is no longer enough; he sees that the politically active classes may become powerless, and that their abdication of leadership is a development often more decisive than the alleged demands and decisions of the people. Revolutions are seldom made by the conscious dynamism of the people; yet Tocqueville rejects both the fatalistic notion that accidents govern history and the deterministic notion that people are moved by predetermined material motives. History is made by men, to whom God has given free will. He saw the historian’s task as being moral as well as artistic. In his notes he often wrote: “What I am going to paint,” “what I am trying to portray.” He wished to paint rather than to chronicle, and he sought to detect the latent tendencies of the human heart and mind rather than to ascertain and explain regularities. His purpose was description rather than definition, comprehension rather than narration.
The Movement Toward Social Democracy and Liberty
While Tocqueville was writing the first volume of the Old Regime and the French Revolution he was thinking more in terms of a European Revolution. He considered that what had happened in France in 1789 was but the first phase of an epoch of European revolutions which, sixty years after the storming of the Bastille, was still going on. The European Revolution, in turn, was but part and parcel of a greater movement toward social democracy, at the core of which stood the fundamental problem of the relationship of liberty to equality but also that of democracy to Christianity. By the time the first volume was published he was well on his way through the second. Of the second volume we have his outline: it was to consist of five books, of which two (Books I and III) were almost completed; the rest consists of half-completed passages and notes to himself.
The Incomplete Second Volume of ‘L’Ancien Régime’
That Tocqueville died before he could finish this work was, and remains, a tragedy. As in the case ofDemocracy in America, the second volume might have been even more impressive than the first. The portions we have suggest this judgment. Book I deals with France immediately before the Revolution, Book III with the coming of Bonaparte. In Book I Tocqueville draws attention to the history of the Parlements, those aristocratic assemblies which in 1788 initiated the attack on the old regime. The title of the fourth chapter reads: “How, Just When They Thought Themselves Masters of the Nation, the Parlements Suddenly Discovered That They Amounted to Nothing.” Perhaps the most brilliant completed portion of the second volume of the Old Regime is Book III, France before the Consulate. “How the Republic Was Ready to Accept a Master.” “How the Nation, Though Ceasing to Be Republican, Remained Revolutionary.”
Between fear of the royalists and of the Jacobins, the majority of the nation sought an escape. The Revolution was dear, but the Republic was feared lest it should result in the return of one or the other. One might even say that each of these passions nourished the other; it was because the French found precious certain benefits ensured them by the Revolution that they feared all the more keenly a government which might interfere with these profits. Of all the privileges that they had won or obtained during the previous ten years, the only one that they were disposed to surrender was liberty. They were ready to give up the liberty which the Revolution had merely promised, in order to finally enjoy the benefits that it had brought.
The parties themselves, decimated, apathetic, and weary, longed to rest for a time during a dictatorship of any kind, provided only that it was exercised by an outsider and that it weighed upon their rivals as much as on themselves. This feature completes the picture. When great political parties begin to cool in their attachments without softening their hatreds, and at last reach the point of wishing less to succeed than to prevent the success of their opponents, one should prepare for servitude—the master is near.
It was easy to see that this master could rise only from the army…
What a portrait of Napoleon Tocqueville could have given us! We have some of its features in the notes he left behind; they startle us with his many insights.
The last of Tocqueville’s notes sums up his view of the Revolution:
Generally speaking, people are not very ardent or indomitable or energetic in their affairs when their personal passions are not engaged. Yet their personal passions, however vivid they may be, do not propel them either very far or very high unless these passions keep growing before their own eyes, unless they seem to justify themselves by being related to some greater cause for the service of mankind.
It is due to our human sense of honor that we should be in need of this stimulant. Add to passions born of self-interest the aim to change the face of the world and to regenerate the human race: only then will you see what men are really capable of.
That is the history of the French Revolution.
Its narrow-minded and selfish nature led to violence and darkness; its generous and selfless elements made its impulse powerful and great.
Tocqueville as a Complex Modern Historian
Tocqueville’s books about the French Revolution are the clearest evidence that he was a modern historian. And yet, because of the deplorable habit of thinking in intellectual compartments, it is seldom that he is recognized as such. An interesting list could be compiled with the names of those who have asserted that Tocqueville was a conservative, a liberal, a historian, a sociologist, an aristocrat, a democrat, a Christian, an agnostic. In quite a few instances the commentators contradict themselves; at times Tocqueville is assigned to contradictory categories within the same monograph, essay, or review. Yet his books about the Revolution are crystal clear. They show, for instance, that while he did not believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God, neither did he believe that it was the voice of the devil. He was not one of those who thought that a nation has the right to go beyond her natural interest to impose ideas on others and arrogate to herself the role of teaching the world; yet he did not believe in a narrow concept of national interest either. He was not a French nationalist or a European imperialist; yet he did not assume that the achievements and the ideals of every nation and every civilization are of the same worth. He condemned the old regime as well as the Revolution and found virtues in both.
Tocqueville: A Moral, Hortatory Historian Who Eludes Categories
The Revolution, therefore, is hortatory history. I have suggested that it is hardly possible to comprehend Tocqueville’s writing without considering the moral purposes of their author. In turn, it is only with this moral purpose in mind that one can avoid some of the mistaken conceptions of Tocqueville and his work. If the main concern of Democracy in America was the future of democracy, that book also reveals Tocqueville as more than a conservative democrat or a liberal aristocrat. If the main concern of The Revolution included the future of France and of Europe, it also reveals Tocqueville as more than an old-fashioned historian or a forerunner of sociology. His concern with the evolving relationship of Christianity and democracy, as revealed in his letters and later writings, shows that he was neither a “progressive” Catholic nor an aristocratic skeptic, but a great Christian thinker and a magnanimous spirit.
V. Tocqueville’s Last Year
During the summer of 1858 Tocqueville’s physical condition worsened. He had to give up work on his book. In June he suffered a hemorrhage in one lung. His wife was also ill. In October his doctor in Paris recommended that they go south again. Next month they arrived in Cannes, completely exhausted. By February his health had improved a little. As always, he devoted considerable time and effort to correspondence with his friends. His last letters were dictated a week before the day he died, on 16 April 1859.
Tocqueville and Religion
Next to his health, the most important development during Tocqueville’s last months concerned his religion. Soon after they had arrived in Cannes the Tocquevilles began to look for a nursing sister. Since his illness prevented him from going to church, he asked one of the Sisters to read him the prayers of the Mass. The Bishop of Orleans came to visit; he and another priest said Mass in his rooms. He made his confession, he took Communion, and he died in peace with himself and with his Church.
Why lay stress on these private matters? For two reasons. First, they may help to answer the third among the series of questions: was Tocqueville a historian or a sociologist? a liberal or a conservative? a skeptic or a believing Catholic? Second, his concern with religion appears with increasing frequency in Tocqueville’s correspondence during the last decade of his life when, together with his self-questioning about his own faith, the problem of the compatibility of religion with democracy became one of his deepest preoccupations. There are evidences of this already in his Democracy in America in the 1830s.
Tocqueville’s Correspondence with Gobineau
Tocqueville’s correspondence was voluminous. Of the—not yet completed—edition of his collected works in twenty-one volumes, eleven or twelve will consist of letters. They are still being discovered in French family archives and in the stocks of manuscript dealers.
The publication of the first complete edition of Tocqueville’s writings began in Paris in 1951, under the editorship of J.P. Mayer. After thirty-one years it is still far from being complete. Sixteen volumes of theseOEUVRES COMPLèTES have been published (including two double volumes of De la démocratie en Amérique), six more are yet to come. There is reason to believe that even this edition will be only near-complete, since the corpus of Tocqueville’s written heritage, including the scattered mass of his letters, is enormous. See the Bibliography for specifics on the French editions.
The scope of his correspondence is amazing. It deals with innumerable topics of lasting interest. The letters about England, Germany, Russia deserve minute attention. The quality of the writing is as high as that of his finished books. Tocqueville had often thought that he was solitary, though he put great value on his friendships. He was thus driven by a need to express his thoughts to his friends. His letters served him as a diary would another thinker. In them one finds the germ of ideas Tocqueville would later develop in a book. Among the most important of these letters are those which Tocqueville wrote to Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882). Gobineau met Tocqueville in the early 1840s. In 1849 he served as Tocqueville’s secretary. During the 1850s they saw each other relatively seldom; but Gobineau tried out some of his theories in his letters to Tocqueville, whose reactions to Gobineau’s ideas—and later, to Gobineau’s book (On the Inequality of the Human Races, 1854) are trenchant and extremely important. They are summary statements of the beliefs of the Catholic Christian Tocqueville; and they are principal arguments for the incompatibility of Christianity with a philosophy of history dependent on conceptions of race. They also illustrate the idealism of Tocqueville who wrote his friend and cousin Louis de Kergorlay (1804–1880) in 1835, twenty years before the development of his dialogue with Gobineau: “Do what you will, you can’t change the fact that men have bodies as well as souls—that the angel is enclosed in the beast…Any philosophy, any religion which tries to leave entirely out of account one of these two things may produce a few extraordinary exemplars, but it will never influence humanity as a whole. This is what I believe, and it troubles me, for you know that, no more detached from the beast than anyone else, I adore the angel and want at all costs to see him predominate…” This passage—by no means an isolated one—shows the Pascalian element in Tocqueville’s thought. Like his temperament and his faith, his views of human nature and of human knowledge were not Cartesian.
Tocqueville’s Non-Mechanistic, Philosophical Mind
Tocqueville had little appetite for methodical philosophy, though on occasion he did not hesitate to criticize certain passages in Aristotle or Plato. Yet the processes to Tocqueville’s thought were exquisitely philosophical. He saw, for example, that in human beings the relations of cause and effect are far more complex than in other organisms, let alone in the physical world. This perception is manifested in Tocqueville’s discovery that revolutions often break out not when the pressure on people is the greatest, but when that pressure has recognizably begun to lessen. In short, the mechanical laws of the physical universe are not automatically applicable to the human universe. As Tocqueville wrote in one of his last letters to Gobineau, in 1858: “A hypothesis which permits the prediction of certain effects that always recur under the same conditions does, in a way, amount to a demonstrable truth. (But) even the Newtonian system has no more than such a foundation.” In this respect, too, Tocqueville’s mind ran ahead of the nineteenth century. His ideas accord with those of some of the greatest twentieth-century thinkers, such as the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset the French radical Christian humanist Bernanos, or the German physicist-philosopher Werner Heisenberg.
We have seen that the recognition of Tocqueville has been far from universal and often inadequate, even though his literary heritage is unusually rich in scope and extent. We know much about his ideas, about the inclinations of his mind, and even about his religious and other beliefs. We know less about his private life. Many of his contemporaries resented Tocqueville’s detached intelligence; they imputed to him an air of self-conscious superiority. Yet Tocqueville was a warm-hearted human being, often to the point of excitability. His physical appearance was unprepossessing: he was small in stature, a thin, nervous little man with a sallow complexion: a frail physical specimen, almost the last of a long line of puissant ancestors. The true nature of his nobility resided in his soul. In one of his notes he wrote: “Life is neither a pleasure nor a pain, but a serious spiritual business which it is our duty to carry through and to terminate with honor.”
For two-thirds of a century after Tocqueville’s death his reputation was in a kind of eclipse; consequently critical studies of Tocqueville during this time were few. R.P. Marcel, Essai politique sur Alexis de Tocqueville(Paris, 1910) deserves mention. Antoine Redier, Comme disait M. de Tocqueville…(Paris, 1925) is invaluable, among other reasons, because of his many details about Tocqueville’s life. Thereafter the number of Tocqueville studies increase. I shall list only the more worthy ones: J.P. Mayer, Prophet of the Mass Age: A Study of Alexis de Tocqueville (New York, 1960); Alexis de Tocqueville: Livre du Centenaire 1859–1959 (Paris, 1960); G. W. Pierson, ed., Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York, 1938); Jean-Claude Lamberti, La notion d’individualisme chez Tocqueville (Paris, 1970); Luis Diez del Corral, La mentalidad politica de Tocqueville con especial referencia a Pascal (Madrid, 1965); Seymour Drescher, Tocqueville and England (Cambridge, Mass., 1964); Jacques Nantet, Tocqueville (Paris, 1971); and James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (Chapel Hill, 1980). Many of the most cogent and valuable commentaries concerning Tocqueville have been published in the form of articles. Consult the Bibliography for additional citations.