A Matter of Caste

Colin Kidd

  • Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution by Hugh Brogan
    Profile, 724 pp, £30.00, December 2006, ISBN 1 86197 509 0

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) presents several faces to the modern world. His measured acceptance of the new forces of democracy unleashed by the American and French Revolutions made him an icon of moderate centrist liberalism. However, he has also had his champions on the right, at least among sophisticated Cold Warriors determined to maintain connections with a broader liberal tradition, including, in his native France, Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel, for whom Tocqueville’s oeuvre was the sole haven of grace and trust within a canon of modern political philosophy whose prescriptions – from right as much as left – seemed to lead to mass extermination or indoctrination.

Tocqueville’s Cold War appeal did nothing to dent his standing in the United States, where his Democracy in America is one of the two unchallenged classics of American political theory, the other being The Federalist Papers. Name recognition within the American political elite has led to the grisliest kind of modern sanctification, the establishment of a consultancy organisation named in his honour. Founded in the mid-1980s, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution is best known for its lobbying efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry and against open source software in computing. Its financial backers remain mysterious. The institution’s president stated in 2004: ‘We don’t talk about money with anybody . . . but we’ll accept money from anybody.’

Tocqueville’s reputation in the world of historians is somewhat different from his profile in corporate America. In the world of historians his significance rests more particularly on L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856). In recent decades this classic work has been substantially reappraised, and, as Keith Baker has argued, Tocqueville has supplanted Marx as the guiding theoretical influence on the historiography of the French Revolution. Historians have largely abandoned the quest for its social and economic origins and returned to political questions, and to Tocqueville’s subtle analysis of the manners and traditions of Ancien Régime life. L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution also focused on neglected continuities between pre-Revolutionary government and the new broom of the Revolution, most especially in policies of centralisation. The principal vehicle of innovation in the recent past had been royal despotism, and it seemed that the Jacobins merely completed – albeit at a furious rate and with unprecedented savagery – what Louis XIV had begun. In this work Tocqueville transcended the political and moral divisions which had so marked French discussion of the losses, traumas and successes of the Revolution. Neither for nor against the Revolution, apparently, Tocqueville’s balanced approach to the history of continuities paved the way for dispassionate academic historians.

Tocqueville’s work has become a byword for detached analysis, and he himself, a member of the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques, is assumed to have been a somewhat desiccated figure, the founding father of that sanitised strain of political science which explores political processes and the workings of institutions, judiciously to be sure, but to the exclusion of the fervour and enthusiasms which animate political life in the raw. It is Hugh Brogan’s achievement in this biography to present Tocqueville as a man of feelings – and not all of them fine feelings. Indeed, one theme dominates: Tocqueville’s failure ever quite to overcome the prejudices of his caste. His career as a political commentator was propelled by a sense of aristocratic loss and disorientation. If his masterpieces were flawed (Brogan firmly but affectionately shows where Tocqueville got some things wrong), their shortcomings tended to derive from a kind of hardwired snobbery. Not that Brogan paints him as a passive hostage of his class. His politics were to diverge from the norms of his kin and rank: in religion he abandoned the institutional redoubt of the Catholic Church for a skeletal deism, and his marriage was a mésalliance with an English commoner, Marie Mottley. Yet to miss the understated inflections of aristocratic attitudes in his work is to miss its passion and, possibly, its primary orientation. In particular, concentration on Tocqueville’s role as a student of emergent democracy draws attention away from its obverse, from his indirect but painful musings on the demise of his own order.

Brogan begins with a full prologue, in which he discusses both his subject’s pedigree and the experiences of Tocqueville’s parents’ circle during the Revolution. The establishment of the point de départ is a characteristically Tocquevillean method, but it is not included here simply as a homage. Students of Tocqueville will fail to make full sense of his ideas without first clambering some way along the branches of his family tree – on both sides. The Clérels were an ancient Norman family whose nobility long predated their acquisition of the manor house of Tocqueville, near Cherbourg, in the mid-17th century. As middle-ranking provincial members of the noblesse de race they maintained the military traditions of their caste and upheld Catholic pieties. However, Hervé de Tocqueville, the father of Alexis, was to marry Louise de Rosanbo, a granddaughter of Chrétien-Guillaume Lamoignon de Malesherbes, a major figure in the legal and administrative noblesse de robe. As an administrator and judge, Malesherbes had censored the work of the philosophes with a light touch and had led the struggle of the courts (the parlements) against the reforms of Louis XV. This campaign provides a direct link between Montesquieu’s arguments for intermediary bodies between state and society, which Malesherbes echoed, and Tocqueville’s later obsession with centralisation. Notwithstanding his opposition to Louis XV, Malesherbes was appointed a minister by Louis XVI and, though he soon fell victim to the ministerial ronde, maintained contact with the king, whom he was to defend, unsuccessfully, when the Revolutionaries tried Louis for his life. During the Terror the whole Malesherbes clan was rounded up and imprisoned in Paris, including Tocqueville’s parents; his mother, already somewhat jittery, was left in a state of nervous exhaustion for the rest of her life. Several members of the extended family were executed, including Malesherbes himself and Jean-Baptiste de Chateaubriand, Hervé de Tocqueville’s brother-in-law and brother of the writer (whose celebrated travels into the American wilderness in 1791 would inspire the American journey of his relative in 1831). The traumatised survivors of the Terror unsurprisingly gravitated towards royalist politics, and Alexis de Tocqueville grew up in a family where legitimism did not arise simply from material self-interest, aristocratic haughtiness or ideological prescription, but drew also on intimate experience of imprisonment and loss.

After the second and irrevocable expulsion of the Bourbons in 1830, Tocqueville would break – outwardly at least and not without considerable anguish – with his family’s Bourbon commitments and come to terms with the reality of non-legitimist government; but, although in other respects a man of the post-Revolutionary world, he never ceased to be an aristocrat. In 1849, he confessed that when he talked ‘to a gentilhomme, though we have not two ideas in common, though all his opinions, wishes and thoughts are opposed to mine, yet I feel at once that we belong to the same family, that we speak the same language, that we understand one another. I may like a bourgeois better, but he is a stranger.’ As a child he had been educated largely by an aged clerical tutor, the beloved Abbé le Sueur, and, though he encountered the children of the bourgeoisie at a lycée in Metz when he was 16, he spent less than two years there. This period of schooling, Brogan reckons, was not long enough for him to become accustomed to the ways of the middle classes, which, to the end of his days, he continued to find alien and crass.

Although Tocqueville had taken the required oath to the new Orleanist regime in 1830 in order to preserve his position as a juge-auditeur in the law courts, he felt distinctly uncomfortable – a traitor to Bourbon royalism, but hardly a convincing Orleanist. The solution was to get away from it all on an approved fact-finding mission with his friend and fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont, to investigate the penitentiary system in the United States. This trip generated not only a report on American prisons, but also Democracy in America. Yet Tocqueville’s reputation as the acute sociological observer of American egalitarianism is, it transpires, misleading. His visit took place in a window between elections; he mixed largely with upper-class lawyers and with Federalists, members of an elitist party in long-term decline which had last won a presidential contest in 1796; and he sometimes mangled the significance and representativeness of Federalist attitudes or even stray remarks: the provenance, it appears, of his famous conception of the tyranny of the majority. As Brogan notes, Tocqueville and Beaumont ‘forfeited one of the chief advantages of foreign travel, and of travel to the United States above all, the opportunity to shed the burden and trap of their own social identity’. But, shorn of their status as nobles, they would have been at a loss, even in the New World.

Nevertheless, the unreconstructed aristocrat did make a vital discovery. The reality in America of democracy and republicanism differed strikingly from their pejorative meanings in French royalist demonology: ‘If our royalists could see the domestic progress of a well-ordered republic, its deep respect for vested interests, the power of those interests over the mob, law as a religion, the real and effective liberty which everyone there enjoys . . . they would see that they had been confounding under one label differing systems which have no real likeness.’ Brogan argues that the trip to America had made Tocqueville a republican in principle: the example of American democracy suggested – no more than that – ways of overcoming the deep fissures and geological instabilities introduced into modern French politics at the Revolution.

The France to which the travellers returned in 1832 remained far from settled; the same was true of Tocqueville’s own set of political beliefs. Notwithstanding his theoretical appreciation of American-style republicanism and his de facto acceptance of the Orleanist regime, he supported the cause of the duchesse de Berry, who had been imprisoned after leading a pathetic revolt in the Vendée on behalf of the Bourbons. The duchesse considered the Orleanist monarch, Louis-Philippe, to be a base usurper, and claimed the throne in the name of her son, the Bourbon claimant Henri V, for whom she acted as regent. With apparent disregard for his own prospects, Tocqueville sent a letter to the Quotidienne, the leading newspaper of the legitimists, challenging the legality of the duchesse de Berry’s imprisonment. He also appeared as a character witness at the trial of his close friend Louis de Kergorlay, who was tried for his part in another legitimist fiasco, an attempt by the duchesse to raise the Midi for the Bourbons. Tocqueville felt not only a lingering attachment to the Bourbons, but a willingness to associate himself in public with legitimist plotters which went well beyond the prudent limits of sentimental legitimism.

The quick succession of France’s revolutions in government since 1789 had led to political disorientation. With such a wealth of choice on offer, it became difficult to establish a binding national consensus for the long haul, and the conspiracies of the excluded to effect regime change hardly helped matters. By the 1830s the nation was faced with four main alternatives, three of which were in some degree acceptable to Tocqueville. Open-minded and anguished, he still harboured impractical legitimist longings, but had come to terms both with the immediate reality of Orleanist rule and with the idea that France’s best hope in the long run was to become a constitutional republic. The fourth option was the one Tocqueville feared most: a return to Bonapartism. His anxiety that a destabilised France might once again succumb to illiberal dictatorship compelled his retreat from Ancien Régime yearnings to committed liberal republicanism. He could hear the firebell in the night: the Emperor Napoleon’s eldest surviving nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, launched coups d’état in 1836 and 1840, the year Napoleon I’s body was transferred from St Helena to the Invalides. Although the coups failed miserably, popular Bonapartism was reviving. The sham constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe had failed to engender much popular warmth, and the foundations of French government remained fragile, as the events of 1848 were to prove.

Bonapartism – a manifestation of both democratic despotism and centralising authoritarianism – is the spectre that haunts both Democracy in America and L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Indeed, Brogan makes a very persuasive case that Democracy in America, published in separate portions in 1835 and 1840, comprises two different books, the second of which is not really about America at all. Rather, Tocqueville’s sociological reflections on the differences between democracy and aristocracy provided a means of coming to terms with France as it was and might become. His family’s sufferings during the 1790s notwithstanding, he sensed that the worst of all futures would be a return to the sterile world of Napoleonic oppression. Understandably, perhaps, in the light of his vacillations during the 1830s, Democracy in America became more nostalgic and less optimistic as it evolved between 1835 and 1840. Brogan, a sure guide to the twists and turns of Tocqueville’s discomfort, points to the decided oddity of the second portion, which dwells throughout on ‘the weaknesses and dangers of democracy, only to end with splendid affirmation’.

Tocqueville composed L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution after the nightmare had come to pass, during the Second Empire of Napoleon III. The bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philippe had collapsed in 1848, but conservative republicans – and this seems a fair description of Tocqueville’s position in 1848 – were terrified by the socialist proposals of the left. As Tocqueville had come to realise, republican government could be quite a tame affair, if directed by members of the old order, such as himself, who had the wit to reinvent themselves; but not if republicanism became the chosen vehicle to power of those who believed that property was theft. Thought acceptable as a convincing antidote to the threat of radical socialism, and in the absence of strong leadership among the practitioners of conventional politics, Louis Napoleon was easily elected president of the new Second Republic. Curiously, and as a result of various factional manoeuvrings, Tocqueville was to serve for a short period as foreign minister under the Second Republic, with the young Arthur de Gobineau – the future racial theorist – as his loyal chef de cabinet. Even so, and high office notwithstanding, Tocqueville was already depressed by the turn of events in 1848.

Ever since his trip to America, he had found some reassurance in the belief that a republic would ultimately provide a safe harbour from the storms of post-Revolutionary politics, and his failure to find such repose provided further disappointment: ‘I am weary of repeatedly mistaking treacherous fog-banks for the shore, and I often wonder if the terra firma which we have been seeking for so long actually exists, or if our destiny is not rather to beat about eternally at sea.’ Out of office, he turned once again to an illusionless strain of legitimism, attempting to bind Bourbon and Orleanist supporters in a common anti-Bonapartist front, and to win over the comte de Chambord – the Bourbon pretender, Henri V – to an open commitment to liberalism.

The last few years of Tocqueville’s life were ones of political despair, a kind of internal exile, and exacerbation of the ill-health that had plagued him throughout his adult life. Yet the revival in 1852 of the Napoleonic Empire, and with it some of the trappings of the illiberal state of his childhood, provoked the ailing Tocqueville’s second masterpiece, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, the first part of a larger project on the history of French centralisation and authoritarianism. His death was prolonged and painful. Progressively weakened by various stomach complaints, he had also succumbed to tuberculosis. At the end, he was reconciled with the Catholic Church.

Brogan’s moving biography helps to resolve some of the puzzlement associated with Tocqueville’s politics. Scholars have been mystified by the strangeness of his liberalism, not least his strictures on bourgeois society. What at bottom does liberalism stand for, if not for the values of the middle classes and the liberty which accompanies a culture of commerce and exchange? One solution has been to assign Tocqueville, along with several other 19th-century figures, to the transitional category of ‘aristocratic liberalism’, an ascription that nicely captures his ingrained social attitudes. Yet these contortions might be avoided by concentrating less on outcomes than on the point de départ: Ancien Régime values, Bourbon royalism and Catholic tradition. What became of legitimists in the aftermath of a plausible legitimism? Instead of aligning Tocqueville with other leading liberals of his day, it is more revealing to compare the arc of his career with the trajectories of other post-legitimists, such as the reactionary cleric Félicité Lamennais and Tocqueville’s one-time protégé Gobineau. Lamennais’s quest for legitimate authority in the post-Revolutionary world inspired first a provocative Ultramontanism, which would have subordinated all temporal rulers to the papacy, and then its polar opposite, an equally outspoken democratic radicalism. Another road led in the direction of fascism via Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Though himself a bourgeois attempting to pass as a noble, Gobineau was enchanted with gradation and purity of blood, discovering an alternative world of hierarchy in the new science of racial classification. Like the sinister fantasies of Gobineau and the zigzag extremism of Lamennais, the richness and ambiguities of Tocqueville’s thought were the response of a disappointed traditionalist to the burden of unwanted possibilities.