On 24 February 1848, having already forced Louis Philippe out of the Tuileries Palace, the Paris crowd stormed the Chamber of Deputies, where France’s political elite was fighting over the remnants of the July Monarchy. A series of ministers had been trying to form a provisional government under the regency of the Duchesse d’Orléans, the former king’s daughter-in-law, who was sitting calmly in the chamber. But the masses didn’t want a regency; they wanted revolution. Their presence swung the balance of power towards the radical opposition, which promptly announced the birth of the Second Republic. Alexis de Tocqueville watched these scenes from his usual position on the upper benches of the chamber. Despite their swords and bayonets and muskets, the revolutionaries were too theatrical for him to take seriously; the deputies who supported them also seemed to be acting in a pantomime of 1789. The only thing Tocqueville found genuinely moving was the plight of the duchess: when she was ushered to safety, he recalled springing from his seat and running through the palace in a gallant but futile pursuit of the royal party. Snubbed by the old regime, he returned to his seat to watch the ‘burlesque’ and ‘tragedy’ of democratic politics unfold.
Tocqueville had no particular affection for the Orléans family or the July Monarchy. But he had an instinctive deference for the symbols of tradition and order, and a fondness for heroic gestures that evoked bygone eras of aristocratic grandeur. On a tour of England as a young man, a ride to Warwick Castle had left him in a state of Gothic rapture: ‘Imagine,’ he wrote to his wife, Mary, ‘a light breeze, a cloudless sky, a full moon; add to this a fiery and agile horse between my thighs, centuries of chivalry in my head, and some of the fire of youth in my veins; and you will know that I didn’t touch the ground.’ ‘There are times,’ he admitted to his friend and travel companion Gustave de Beaumont, ‘when I fear becoming mad in the manner of Don Quixote. I have a temperament crammed with a heroism that hardly belongs to our age.’ His political opponents, and some allies, resented the way he tried to maintain a prideful independence in public affairs, as if he were the last noble soul in a governing class captured by ambition and greed. Many contemporaries suspected him of reactionary conservatism, or at least nostalgia for the Ancien Régime – a charge Tocqueville always denied. But some of his more recent defenders, among them the historian Olivier Zunz and the political theorist Jeremy Jennings, present Tocqueville instead as a thinker who accepted the demise of feudalism, and who went further than most in making sense of the society emerging from the ruins.
This was no easy task. Christopher Clark’s recent history of 1848, Revolutionary Spring, shows that most Europeans experienced the preceding decades as a time of ‘flux and transition’. In France, a number of different political futures seemed possible. Some of these were inherited from the recent past – constitutional monarchy, Catholic absolutism, Jacobin republic – while others emerged from the radical movements that thrived in 1830s Paris. Feminists such as Claire Démar and Suzanne Voilquin wanted to abolish marriage and the patriarchy. Fourier and his disciples were trying to establish ‘phalansteries’ that would render the division of labour obsolete. The Saint-Simonians in Ménilmontant were seeking a fusion of free love with the ‘fraternal’ ideals of medieval Christianity and the productive capacities of modern industry. New thinking was accompanied by new forms of community and collective action. Excluded from the franchise, which the constitution of 1830 expanded from 0.3 to 0.5 per cent of the population, large sections of the middle and working classes could nevertheless participate in politics through newspapers, workers’ co-operatives, mutual aid societies, banquets, utopian cults and underground conspiratorial networks. Political opinions were at once firmly held and highly changeable: Félicité Lamennais began his career as a conservative ultramontane priest, became a liberal journalist, and ultimately embraced Christian socialism. While the high politics of the July Monarchy were often derided as lethargic and boring – ‘a bland … bourgeois stew’ in Tocqueville’s words – public life was otherwise feverish and unpredictable.
For Tocqueville, this intellectual agitation was symptomatic of a deeper cultural disorder. The revolutionaries of the previous century had rejected the institutions and ideas of the Ancien Régime without knowing what to put in their place. In the introduction to the first volume of Democracy in America (1835), written when he was thirty, Tocqueville complained of living in a world ‘in which nothing any longer seems forbidden or allowed, honest or shameful, true or false’ – ‘a world in which nothing makes sense’. America itself was constantly on the move, due in no small measure to partible inheritance laws which, in contrast to primogeniture, destroyed the bond between family and land and forced the dispossessed children of the gentry to break their own ground in ‘the valleys of the Mississippi’. Even everyday language was volatile: old words took on new meanings, and new words were constantly being invented. There was ‘no common arbiter, no permanent tribunal’, and therefore no shared understanding. In contrast to feudal society, where everyone, lord or serf, remained rooted to the land, and words were ‘passed on from generation to generation’, life in the democratic age was unmoored, indeterminate, even meaningless. Tocqueville refused to accept this anarchic new world at face value. Instead, like a 19th-century Lévi-Strauss, he sought to develop a ‘new science’ to decode a foreign and seemingly incoherent culture.
Like Lévi-Strauss, he first developed his science while in exile in America. The collapse of the Restoration monarchy in July 1830 placed Tocqueville, then an apprentice prosecutor at the Versailles court, in a delicate position. He was descended from the ancient nobility of Normandy. Most of his relatives were ‘legitimists’ who retained an aristocratic commitment to the Ancien Régime and a hatred of revolution: three generations of his family were executed during the Terror; his parents were imprisoned for six months, and only escaped the guillotine thanks to the fall of Robespierre. Tocqueville himself was not immune to what he called a ‘hereditary affection’ for the Bourbon monarchy: he later confessed to weeping at the sight of Charles X being forced out of Versailles. But professional ambition led him to swear an oath of allegiance to the new constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe d’Orléans. When asked to choose a side, Tocqueville, not for the last time, preferred to maintain an ambivalent sort of independence, and so ended up alienating everyone. Legitimists accused him of self-interest, while the new government doubted his loyalty. He found himself socially ostracised and professionally stuck, working as an ‘obscure assistant judge’ while his contemporaries rose through the magistracy. America provided a way out. Under the ‘honourable pretext’ of writing a report on the American penitentiary system, Tocqueville could leave France for a year and return with a publication that would restore his reputation. He and Beaumont left Le Havre on 2 April 1831 and arrived in Rhode Island five weeks later. Over the next nine months they covered plenty of ground, travelling west to Green Bay and south to New Orleans before heading back to New York.
Some critics have argued that Tocqueville didn’t really get America – that he failed to notice the early signs of industrialisation in the Midwest, missed the religious revival among the middle classes of New England, and recycled conventional opinions overheard at high-society balls. He and Beaumont certainly kept elite company, their passage smoothed by letters of introduction to New York shipping magnates, Cincinnati lawyers and Boston bankers. This was, in other words, a reasonably enjoyable kind of exile. It was also theoretically liberating. As Lévi-Strauss would himself experience a century later, dépaysement in the New World allowed Tocqueville to productively exploit the alienation he had only endured in France. At home, thinking about the political impulses of the masses tended to evoke the trauma of sans-culottes and guillotines. But America was a society ‘without roots, without memories’; there was ‘nothing to forget’. On his travels Tocqueville was able to contemplate – from an aristocratic remove, but at least without fear – what he called the moeurs of the bourgeoisie: their habits of mind, morals, daily customs and kinship structures; their respect for the nuclear family and their obsession with money. If Tocqueville missed many of the events and transformations that were taking place on the surface, it was in part because he was looking for something deeper: the cultural substratum of beliefs and practices that might reveal the hidden logics and likely future of democracy.
America offered a glimpse of Europe’s destiny, as a place where the ‘great social revolution’ that was still tearing its way through the Old World had worked itself out in a comparatively easy fashion. Tocqueville was reassured by New England’s civic associations and local newspapers: they showed that modern politics didn’t automatically lead to Jacobin despotism or utopian schemes to transform society. Democracy in New England was in fact rather mundane, dominated not by the clash of incommensurate, strongly held beliefs or charismatic cult leaders but by individual reason and calculation – the routine, narrow self-interest of commercial citizens. In that sense, the American future was also dispiriting. Revolution was unlikely to occur in a society that fostered individualism rather than collective action and generated unprecedented material gratification. But at what cost? Left unchecked, democracy meant the predictable administration of an ‘immense, tutelary’ state and the soft despotism of common sense; it meant that everybody would be comfortable, safe, equal and bored. This was a radical thing to say about a form of government that most people associated with emancipation or violent upheaval. But for Tocqueville it made sense once you looked at how Americans actually behaved – how they drank alone, read popular novels and hid themselves away in ersatz antique palaces. There was a ‘monotony’ beneath the agitated surface of American society, and Tocqueville found it terrifying. As if anticipating the end of history, he feared that ‘man will exhaust his energies in petty, solitary, and sterile changes, and that humanity, though constantly on the move, will cease to advance.’
Biographers and historians have tended to treat these passages, most of which appeared in the second volume of Democracy in America (published five years after the first, in 1840), as proof that Tocqueville’s aristocratic disdain ultimately eclipsed his earlier admiration for American life. In many respects, though, this disposition was there all along. The first volume is also haunted by a world that has been lost, not least in its uncompromising account of the genocide inflicted on Native Americans by European colonists and, more recently, by Andrew Jackson’s government. Tocqueville had witnessed the forced removal of the Choctaw Nation from Arkansas, and a trip to the virgin forests of Saginaw had left him dreading the encroachment of the frontier into the American wilderness. As the despondent final chapter of the first volume made clear, the ‘formalities’ and ‘legalities’ of the United States were proving far more effective than the atrocities of Spanish colonialism at exterminating or expelling Indigenous populations. Like the European aristocrat, the ‘noble savage’ was helpless against the onslaught of democracy.
The publication of the first instalment of Democracy in America had the desired effect. Positive reviews appeared in the French press, and, from John Stuart Mill, in the London Review. The doors to Parisian salons were now open, but Tocqueville soon found himself exhausted by the engagements of literary society, which he considered a distraction from his political and philosophical ambitions. A first attempt to get elected to the chamber of deputies, in 1837, failed due to his stubborn refusal to court favour with powerful relatives (among them Louis-Mathieu Molé, a cousin who happened to be prime minister) and to an uninspiring campaign. People knew Tocqueville’s name but had no idea what he stood for: his self-definition as a ‘liberal of a new kind’, opposed to both ‘the friends of order’ and the ‘dirty democrats of our age’, did little to enlighten even close friends. He was eventually elected deputy for Valognes in his native Normandy in 1839; the second volume of Democracy in America was published the following year. For Zunz, this marked the point at which Tocqueville ‘finally stopped equivocating between his two worlds’ and ‘came down firmly, at last, on the side of democracy’.
Zunz sees evidence of this new-found conviction in the ‘theoretical acrobatics’ of the second volume. Written at a friend’s chateau (Tocqueville’s own was being renovated), with America an increasingly distant memory, it largely dispensed with the ethnographic detail of its predecessor. Instead, Tocqueville elaborated on what Zunz calls his ‘grand theory’ of democracy, where abstractions such as ‘association’ and ‘self-interest properly understood’ do battle with the corrosive effects of equality and individualism. Zunz believes it’s the former that win out, allowing Tocqueville to find some possibility of salvaging ‘political liberty’ in an age of conformism and apathy. Jennings largely agrees, but argues that Tocqueville arrived at this intellectual ambition by remaining committed to the methods by which he had achieved his fame. Since returning from New York in 1832, Tocqueville had travelled to England and Ireland, and then to Switzerland on his honeymoon (he spent most of it reading Plato, Machiavelli and Montesquieu). Each experience had left him convinced that the Old World was slowly conforming to the American model. As a result, he felt emboldened to discuss democracy in universal, categorical terms. He described his approach in the second volume as an attempt ‘to consider and judge human affairs’ from the perspective of God.
Most French intellectuals in the 1830s adopted this grand historical register. Tocqueville wasn’t alone in thinking of his own society as being the product of a ‘seven-hundred-year process’: Guizot and Saint-Simon also traced the origins of modernity back to the medieval past, and considered history a power ‘superior to man’. Despite Zunz’s attempts to argue otherwise, what set Tocqueville apart was his ambivalence about the direction of history. He might have accepted democracy as a ‘providential fact’, the manifestation of divine will, but he couldn’t accept it as progress. The Saint-Simonians, Fourier and Comte – and even the less radical Guizot – believed that looking to the deep past was a precondition for action; they wanted first to understand the forces of history before harnessing them to political ends. Tocqueville, by contrast, always gave the impression of having been conscripted into modernity. He was opposed to the main drivers of change in the democratic age: commercial self-interest, the centralised state, mass politics, revolution. The best he could hope for was minor alterations to the society he had inherited.
By his own admission , Tocqueville’s political career was a disappointment. Seeking a ‘middle ground’ between the party of movement and the party of order, and considering himself ‘perfectly balanced between past and future’, he ended up stranded. Zunz attributes Tocqueville’s struggles to the difficulty of putting into practice such a ‘demanding’ theory of democracy, which required the political class to provide an example of ‘political liberty’ for the masses. A nervous speaker and a naive tactician, derided as aloof even by his fellow elite representatives, Tocqueville would always struggle to meet that standard. Yet perhaps the problem was not so much in his character as in his ideas, which were so suspicious of modern forms of power.
Consider slavery. Volume One of Democracy in America concludes with an extended denunciation of the institution. By lending ‘dishonour’ to labour, and by encouraging idleness, pride and luxury, slavery exerted a ‘fatal influence’ not only on the Black population but on the political economy of American democracy. Yet Tocqueville had little hope that a solution could be found. A slave revolution would require violence, while top-down abolition would only give more power to the central government. As a deputy, Tocqueville consistently advocated for the immediate emancipation of all slaves in the French colonies. But he also sought compromise with planters, speaking in support of reforms which would offer them favourable terms on manumission and indemnity. Some members of the colonial lobby quoted passages from Democracy in America in their arguments against abolition. It wasn’t until 1848 that France abolished slavery, for the second time; just as in 1794, it required a revolutionary government to recognise the demands of the enslaved for freedom.
Despite frustration with his limited influence and mediocre colleagues, Tocqueville remained in office throughout the 1840s. Most of his efforts were dedicated to reforming prisons and education, and to cheerleading the colonisation of Algeria, which he saw as necessary for competing with the British Empire, and as a means of drawing French subjects out of their narrow, private concerns and uniting them behind a national cause. Jennings, cautioning against the ‘arrogance of hindsight’, points out that Tocqueville’s views on Algeria hewed closely to popular opinion. But if he viewed colonialism as one of the few remaining avenues for political liberty, it was because he had such a narrow conception of what constituted ‘politics’, even by the standards of the time. Flora Tristan’s organising of factory workers and dockhands certainly didn’t count; Tocqueville would have seen this as another instance of a bourgeois intellectual inflaming the passions of the lower classes. Nor did the chambrées (people’s clubs), gambling rings and drinking societies that the historian Maurice Agulhon has credited with the spread of republicanism around the Var and Provence. Over the course of 1847, a ‘campagne des banquets’ had extended across France as a means of circumventing government restrictions on public assemblies and overtly political meetings; Tocqueville viewed these banquets with ‘irritation’ and ‘disgust’. He had no sympathy for the emergent feminist movement, or for the idea that women might participate in public life. He repeatedly opposed attempts to broaden the electorate by lowering property qualifications.
All of which helps explain his dismissive reaction to the popular uprising of February 1848, which even close friends like Beaumont found excessively ‘gloomy’. Rather than wallowing, however, Tocqueville resolved once again to ‘plunge boldly into the arena’. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly, where he tried to steer the revolution away from radical republicanism and towards a constitution that respected ‘property, family, and civilisation’. He supported General Cavaignac’s bloody suppression of protesting workers during the June Days, in which more than ten thousand people were killed or injured. And in 1849 he accepted a role in Louis Napoleon’s government, ostensibly with a view to taming the despotic ambitions of the new president. Instead, he ended up backing illiberal policies – the suspension of clubs, press censorship and the declaration of a state of siege around Paris to prevent demonstrations – and, as foreign minister, was tasked with invading the fledgling republic of Rome and restoring Pope Pius IX to power. Towards the end of the year he was dismissed along with the rest of the cabinet, before Louis Napoleon staged a coup against the republican constitution and declared himself emperor for life.
Tocqueville had long feared this revolution, and its outcome seemed to confirm his belief that mass politics was more likely to lead to despotism than to liberty. But there were aspects of 1848 that he found baffling: its theatrical, parodic rhetoric; the intensity of its violence; its denouement in the unlikely figure of Napoleon III; and, not least, his own role in its trajectory. Banished from politics for good, Tocqueville retired to Normandy and wrote up his Souvenirs, which combine score-settling (his one-time mentor Ledru-Rollin was ‘nothing more than a very sensual and sanguine heavy fellow, quite without principles and almost without brains’), self-reflection (‘my dissatisfaction with myself, my wariness and reserve were taken for presumptuousness, a fault which makes more enemies than the most glaring vices’), and lucid dissection of the Second Republic. Zunz alludes to the remarkable similarity between Tocqueville’s analysis of 1848 and Marx’s in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Both agreed on the culpability of the July Monarchy, which had been captured by lawyers and financiers; both recognised the inability of the Paris proletariat and its republican leaders to form coalitions with other classes and political factions; both attributed the popularity of Napoleon III to the isolation of the smallholding peasantry; and both saw 1848 as a farcical imitation of 1793. For Marx, the failure of the revolutionaries to come up with their own slogans and ideas showed that the working class had to abandon hope in the bourgeoisie and, eventually, carry out its own revolution. Tocqueville came to a characteristically despondent conclusion: there had only ever been one revolution, and France would probably remain trapped in it for generations to come.
Towards the end of the Cold War, historians turned from Marx to Tocqueville as their theoretical guide to the age of revolutions. Social interpretations based on class conflict and economic transformation made way for studies of politics and culture; narratives of rupture ceded to narratives of continuity. The key text in this transition, recovered by the polemical revisionist François Furet, was The Old Regime and the French Revolution, which Tocqueville published in 1856 after four years of reading and research in the Bibliothèque nationale and the Tours archives. Tocqueville had conceived of the project as a cure for the ‘maladie de l’âme’ brought on by Napoleon III’s coup, and framed it as an attempt to understand why democratic revolutions always led to despotism. Tracing his way backwards – from the Directory to 1789 to the Ancien Régime, via the writings of Constant, Burke and Turgot – he found the answer in the nobility’s ‘cowardly’ submission to the forces of absolutism. Despotism was deeply ingrained in France: it had existed in the royal bureaucracy of Louis XV, was replicated in Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, and persisted in Tocqueville’s day, under the guise of ‘modern socialism’. Having cut off the head of the king, the Girondins and Jacobins of the National Convention proceeded only to place ‘Liberty’s head on a servile body’. Subsequent revolutionaries were condemned to repeat their mistake.
The Old Regime amounted to a brilliant reinterpretation of the French Revolution not as the negation of absolutism, but as its ultimate expression. It also offered a message that suited the Anglophone intellectual elite at the end of the 20th century: the supposedly emancipatory schemes of the left are unserious, utopian and counterproductive; revolutions only make things worse. Thirty years on, the spirit of the 1990s endures. Tocqueville ultimately had a patrician, constrained understanding of freedom: he welcomed the freedom of the parliamentary pulpit or the New England town hall, but not the freedom of the barricades. Zunz concludes by noting that Tocqueville’s life was bookended by ‘two great national tragedies’, the ‘Revolutionary Terror in France’ and the American Civil War, as if these tragedies were not also moments of genuine emancipation. It’s a narrative of modernity that Tocqueville would no doubt have endorsed: a history of democracy made safe from revolution.
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