Tocqueville in Saginaw

Alan Ryan

When Americans test the health of their republic, scrutinise the civic virtue of their fellow citizens, or worry that religion is playing too large or too small a role in public life, the text from which they draw their standards of political health and psychological well-being, and the text from which they draw their hopes and fears is a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old treatise written by a French aristocrat of 30 who had spent barely nine months in the country. But though Democracy in America has been appropriated by America it was not really written for Americans. Its immediate target was de Tocqueville’s countrymen, who seemed to have a talent for revolution but no corresponding talent for self-government; more broadly, its target was every anxious liberal who sympathised with the political and economic aspirations of the less favoured members of society, but feared their predilection for dictators, every liberal whose instincts were egalitarian, but who feared mob rule, or the reign of ignorance or the triumph of mere levelling. It continues to have a tenacious grip on just that audience.

Ralf Dahrendorf taught post-1945 West Germany lessons from Tocqueville-in particular, that it was not enough to repent of the misdeeds of the Third Reich, that democracy needed ‘the antagonism of opinions’ more than the concerted mouthing of Cold War platitudes which conservative politicians preferred. In post-war France, Raymond Aron saw Tocqueville as the great counter-weight to Marx. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd reminded Americans that Tocqueville had feared they would become ‘other-directed’ conformists, incapable of the generosity, independence and energy that democratic government required. In England, Tocqueville’s work was translated and his insights naturalised within months of the appearance of the first volume of Democracy in America; Tocqueville provided the sociological underpinnings of Mill’s essay On Liberty, and the political sociology of English liberalism ever after.

What Tocqueville first did for liberal democrats in Democracy in America, he repeated twenty years later in L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Largely for political reasons, it was less of an immediate literary success that Democracy in America; intellectually, it has sustained theorists of revolution ever since. Tocqueville’s demonstration that the violent political upheavals of 1789-99 masked a deeper continuity between the France of Louis XIV and post-revolutionary France raised issues about the relationship between pluralism and social stability that have been debated ever since; his claim that Britain preserved its aristocratic form of government because the English aristocracy was both a permeable élite and a genuinely useful one has sparked off quantities of historical research; and his observation that revolutions occur when things are getting better rather than when they are at their worst has been tinkered with, refined into the so-called ‘J-curve’ model of revolution, and has been excessively relied on as a counter to Marxian claims about the revolutionary consequences of the immiseration of the working class.

The great merit of André Jardin’s Toc queville is its reminder of how much more there was to Tocqueville than his books. Though the two great books occupied an important place in Tocqueville’s life, and rightly occupy a good deal of Jardin’s book, the fascination of the story lies in the tensions between the author and the work. Tocqueville was anything but a ‘knee-jerk liberal’ in the modern American sense. He was an unabashed nationalist and an unabashed imperialist. Though Britain served as a model of one sort of political success, he was no Anglophile and no internationalist. France had to stand up to Britain wherever their overseas interests conflicted, and he urged France and the United States to unite in pressing their common concern that Britannia should not rule the waves too absolutely. If he has now become one of the ‘founding fathers of the social sciences’, we have to recall that he contrived his visit to America because his career at home was derailed by the Revolution of 1830, and wrote L’Ancien Régime because Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état had put an end to his ministerial career and forced him out of national politics.

André Jardin is the general editor of the projected complete works of Tocqueville, and a distinguished historian of French politics between Napoleon I and Napoleon III, and he writes with the relaxed mastery of a vast and complex body of material that only somebody in such a position could possess. The result is deeply engrossing, but faintly baffling. Jardin’s Tocqueville is so solidly situated in the legitimist aristocracy from which he sprang, and so conscious of the ties of honour that bound him to his intransigent relatives, that his democratic sympathies and his intellectual suppleness seem, if anything, more unaccountable than ever.

His family – the Clérels – could trace their descent from comrades-in-arms of the Conqueror, and were solidly established landowners in the Cotentin. Alexis’s father, Comte Hervé, had been a newly fledged soldier of 16 when the Revolution broke out. Like many aristocrats, he hoped he might loyally serve his king under a liberal constitution, but this became increasingly impossible, and after his marriage to a granddaughter of Malesherbes he found himself swept up in the brutalities of the Terror. Many of his wife’s family and Malesherbes himself were executed, and he and his wife Louise spent most of 1794 in jail and in imminent danger of execution. When they emerged from prison, he was prematurely white-haired, and she was a semi-invalid who would be remembered as ‘capricious impatient, wasteful, a victim of recurring migraines, and afflicted with a profound, constant melancholy’. For the next thirty years, Hervé was engaged in repairing the damage done to the combined families’ properties and fortune.

When Alexis de Tocqueville was born in 1805, the youngest of Hervé’s three sons, he was born into a family which had no reason to love democracy, nor to view the Revolution as anything but an unmitigated disaster. It seems plausible, as Jardin suggests, that Tocqueville’s frailty – he was only 53 when he died in 1859 – and the constant free-floating anxiety that haunted him all his life had their roots in his parents’ misfortunes. The early influences were intransigently ultra-royalist: his mother was convinced the clock could be turned back by a legitimist and Catholic reconquest. His tutor, the Abbé Leseur, who had been tutor to his father and his brothers, was a non-juring priest who had emigrated during the Revolution, and under the Restoration wrote of the liberals as a ‘cursed race’ and prayed for ‘a leper house in the frozen seas of Siberia where the sowers of the plague would be shut up’. Alexis’s older brother, Hippolyte, was a fire-eating legitimist who tried to bully his younger brother into sharing his opinions until he suddenly (and briefly) turned republican in the 1848 Revolution. Their father was less high-pitched in his legitimism, but as a Prefect under Louis XVIII and Charles X got a reputation for behaving much like an intendant under the Ancien Régime – though he was unloved by the King’s ministers only because he was not very good at fixing elections.

Hervé was a man of wide general culture, as well as a diligent landowner and administrator. When Charles X was forced to abdicate in the Revolution of 1830 Hervé retired to the country to write the prehistory of the Revolution. Several commentators have tried to find some prefiguring of Tocqueville’s intellectual interests in his father’s work, but Jardin is surely right when he says ‘Comte Hervé’s thoughts remained turned toward the past ... His son became conscious of an inexorable historical movement that was obliging men to rebuild the entire structure of society on new foundations.’ They may have shared a feeling that aristocratic privilege imposed a duty to provide sound political leadership, and act as intermediaries between the subject and the state, but they interpreted that duty in drastically different ways. Alexis’s intellectual path was strikingly his own.

It took him some time to find it. Family connections secured him an (unpaid) post of juge auditeur – a junior magistrate – at Versailles, but he had no particular aptitude for the work, and had not attained a salaried position by the time he left for good in 1832. When Charles X was thrown out by the July Revolution of 1830, Alexis suffered some mild pangs of so to speak hereditary discomfort at the final downfall of the Bourbons: for Charles X he felt no affection, thinking him foolish and cowardly, but he found the day he had to swear allegiance to the new regime ‘among the most unhappy of my life’. Exactly how Tocqueville and his friend and fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont hit on the idea of visiting America as a way of avoiding the tensions of official life under Louis-Philippe is not known, but there is no reason to doubt Beaumont’s recollection that Tocqueville had wanted to visit America for some years before 1830: at all events, they got leave of absence to go and study American prison organisation, sailed from Cherbourg on 2 April 1831 and returned some eleven months later.

Much the most engaging part of Jardin’s book is his chapters on the journey through the United States and Canada. Tocqueville’s aristocratic sensibilities were rubbed raw by the coarseness of American life, but, unlike Mrs Trollope, Captain Basil Hall and Charles Dickens, he could draw on the mutual regard that the War of Independence had created between the Americans and their French allies, and see the democratic virtues that lay beneath the rough exterior. More than than, he approached America with an intellectual equipment nicely adjusted to its task. From Montesquieu on, French thinkers had emphasised the role of a people’s moeurs in its political prospects; this was not a simple-minded idealism, as if all that mattered was political psychology, since it was taken for granted that climate, terrain, economic development and so on would influence the mores as much as ideological factors like religion and overt political morality. Still, it focused attention on the spirit of American democracy in an illuminating way, allowing Tocqueville, for instance, to set the character of the Anglo-Saxon migrant against that of the French – the ‘cold, stubborn, mercilessly argumentative’ Anglo-Saxon emerging as infinitely the less attractive but efficiently adapted to sustaining a prosperous matter-of-fact democracy.

So used have we become to the compressed, textbook picture of Tocqueville’s concerns – his fear of mass society, his anxiety over political leadership in a society where wealth is held in too great esteem, his doubts whether the religious convictions which sustained American self-government would be eroded in a scientific age – that it is refreshing to encounter his immediate responses to the New World. In Saginaw he was about to cross the river when the Indian who ran the ferry suddenly spoke: he ‘put two fingers on my shoulder and said to me in a Norman accent that made me jump, “Pray do not make too much haste, here sometimes people get drowned.” If my horse had spoken to me I don’t think I would have been more surprised.’ He then discovered that lower Canada possessed a substantial population of boisbrûlés, the sons of French Canadian fathers and Indian women, and noted how much readier the French were than the English to mix with the Indians. This, like his well-known observations on the damage that slavery must do to American democracy, reflects the way Tocqueville all his life combined a very sharp sense of racial difference with a religious belief in the equality of all mankind – something which may explain how he remained friendly with de Gobineau, while rebuking him for the inegalitarian and racist conclussions he drew from his work.

Back in France, he and Beaumont duly produced their report on prison administration: but collaboration on the Democracy was never in mind. For that matter, Tocqueville did not exactly write a book on American democracy. Though he found his theme within a year or so of returning to France, he took two bites at it. The first volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, and it is the book the title suggests – focused on political institutions and administrative arrangements, though infinitely wider-ranging than that because of its Montesquieu-like ambition to separate the political structure from the character of the people that put it to work. So he stressed what 20th-century writers have rebaptised ‘American exceptionalism’, the nation’s creation as a new start, unhampered by feudal hangovers: indeed, he exaggerated the extent of religious toleration and respect for individual conscience to be found in Puritan New England. But he also emphasised the extent to which it was a middle-class populism that prevailed: restless politics could be practised against a conservative social and moral background – all the more so because decentralisation forced Americans to practise self-government day in, day out.

While praising the successes of America, the first volume raised a good many doubts and anxieties. Five years later, the second volume spelled them out. Here the conservative Tocqueville spoke of his fears of mental and moral stagnation, his fear that the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that he had mentioned but not dwelt on in the first volume would be the hallmark of democratic societies. John Stuart Mill, who had complained that the one weakness of the first volume was a confusion between the effects of political democracy and those of social and economic equality, now saw more plainly how Tocqueville’s anxieties linked them – and promptly took over those anxieties as his own. Democratic tyranny was gentle but all-pervasive: the majority tastes are established as a normative standard, and because they are the majority tastes one encounters them everywhere. Nobody needs to jail or harass dissenters, because every social encounter will be a gentle nudge towards conformity. Jardin observes that the second volume puzzled French critics: they complained that it was not really about America, or that where it was, it was about a future America or American tendencies. Tocqueville was too distinguished to be dismissed, but too gloomy to be enjoyed, and too deeply engaged in a complicated sociological speculation to be readily followed. It was not until Max Weber popularised the concept of the ‘ideal type’ that Tocqueville’s approach slipped into place in the sociological tradtion.

The author himself was eager to apply his insights in the real world. Getting into the Chamber of Deputies was not much like electoral politics in the modern sense: under the Restoration, the minimum age of a deputy was 40, and even after the July Revolution, it was 30; more to the point, the electorate was tiny, and easily manipulated. When Tocqueville first stood in his local commune of Valognes, there were 627 electors, and in 1837 the fact that his opponent’s uncle was the local collector of taxes seems to have induced some of Tocqueville’s supporters to lie low. In 1840, he won an easy victory. The mixture of diffidence and arrogance that makes his writings so fascinating did a good deal to make his political career something less than a triumph, however.

In part, this was inevitable. In the extraordinary tangle of intrigue that constituted the politics of the July Monarchy Tocqueville had no place. He was hostile to the Orléans dynasty, but unable to subscribe to simple republicanism; he was not a compelling speaker, and his one foray into managing a political journal which might sway extra-parliamentary opinion was an expensive flop. He tried to influence the ‘dynastic left’ – the liberals who looked to Barrot – but was pretty unsuccessful, partly because his own sensibilities stopped him playing the role of humble intellectual, partly because Barrot was too engrossed with his own schemes to listen. The high point of his career came after the 1848 Revolution threw out Louis-Philippe and instituted the Second Republic. Tocqueville had little trouble keeping his seat in the face of challenges from both the Republicans and the party of order, and became Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Barrot Government of 1849 – though his interest in the role of religion and education in the formation of democratic mores made him more anxious to be Minister of Education, a position his more devout colleagues denied him. It was a short-lived appointment, for increasingly it was Louis Bonaparte, the Prince-President, who called the tune, and he decided at the end of October 1849 that Tocqueville was unlikely to be flattered or bribed into acquiescing in the coup d’état he and his entourage had in mind, and dismissed him.

What Tocqueville might have done if he had lived longer, it is impossible to guess. He was already suffering the first ravages of the consumption that was to kill him, and although he struggled to attend the Assembly, he was not well enough to play a large part in the resistance to Louis Bonaparte’s coup, which put an end to the Second Republic on 2 December 1851. Once more, he was at odds with his brothers: Hippolyte hoped to become a Senator and abandoned the Republic as precipitately as he had embraced it; Edouard stood for the legislative assembly as a supporter of the coup. Tocqueville himself settled down to write his last sociological masterpiece, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution. What was published in 1856 was only the first half of the projected work; his death in 1859 prevented him continuing with the story of the Revolution itself, and so deprived the world of a detailed account of the way in which ‘this new breed’ of revolutionaries imposed on the people a despotic authority more minute and more ferocious than any they had seen before, and all in the name of the people themselves. The Second Empire’s time-servers and literary hacks gave the book a hostile reception; its implications for Napoleon III were all too obvious. French liberals, and English readers of Democracy in America, saw it for the triumph it was. That judicious expert on constitutional monarchy, the Prince Consort, was but one of those who lined up to discuss Tocqueville’s work when he paid a brief visit to England in the summer of 1857.

By this time, Tocqueville was too ill to do more than assemble some of the materials for the projected second volume. He died on 16 April 1859. A hundred and thirty years later he remains, as Jardin says, ‘a liberal not like the others’. The contrarieties persist: he died an agnostic, though convinced of the centrality of religion in forming political attitudes; he was to the end an aristocrat whose heart was touched by the feudal hierarchies which he told his readers it was God’s will the democratic tide should wash away, and an egalitarian who nonetheless insisted on the rights of the British and French over their Indian and Arab subjects. But in these contraries lies the secret of Tocqueville’s success. Marx talked of the dialectic, but Tocqueville felt it; he was psychologically attuned to the contradictory and shifting character of modern society, and rightly survives to haunt and puzzle us still.