Come and see for yourself

David A. Bell

  • Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty by Lucien Jaume, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Princeton, 347 pp, £24.95, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 15204 2

On 11 May 1831, a fastidious 25-year-old Norman aristocrat arrived in New York City with an assignment to report on American prisons for the French Ministry of Justice. Over the next nine months he travelled up the East Coast, down the Mississippi and through what was then the wild west of Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan. ‘Not every American is pleasant to interact with,’ he complained in a letter home. ‘A great many smoke, chew tobacco, and spit in front of you.’ He nearly drowned in a steamboat accident, and spent one long winter night shuddering with fever in a log cabin where the wind whipped through the walls and water froze in the glass. In Tennessee, he noted that the people had elected to Congress ‘an individual called David Crockett, who had received no education, could read only with difficulty, had no property, no fixed dwelling, but spent … his whole life in the woods’.

Yet Alexis de Tocqueville also found America ‘a most interesting and instructive country to visit’. Even before he got there, he had conceived the idea of writing ‘a book that gives an accurate notion of the American people, that paints a broad picture of their history’ and ‘analyses their social state’. Even as he diligently inspected American prisons, he tried to make conversation with everyone from the grandees of Boston high society to half-Indian backwoodsmen, taking copious notes, and often reconstructing long discussions in dialogue form. To one friend back home, he wrote that Americans had a character ‘a hundred times happier than our own’. To another, he gushed that ‘here, mankind’s freedom acts in all the fullness of its power.’ And to a third, he confessed: ‘I would wish that all of those who … dream of a republic for France, could come see for themselves what it is like here.’

The book that Tocqueville eventually wrote, Democracy in America, echoed with some of this enthusiasm. It praised the vitality of local government and civic associations, marvelled at the extent of patriotism and respect for the law, and predicted America’s rise to global power. To this day, most Americans who have heard of Tocqueville think of him as the country’s cheerleader, plain and simple. Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton all made speeches quoting, and attributing to Tocqueville, a poetic passage that described American pulpits ‘flaming with righteousness’, and concluded: ‘America is great because she is good.’ Tocqueville never wrote it. He would never have written something this fulsome.

His pessimistic and sceptical sensibility had roots partly in the Jansenist Catholic tradition, with its bleak view of overpowering human corruption, but it also had a far sharper and more specific origin. Tocqueville’s parents had barely escaped the guillotine during the Terror. His father is said to have emerged from prison in October 1794, at the age of 22, with his hair already white. Alexis’s great-grandfather Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes had been beheaded six months earlier, after being forced to watch his daughter and granddaughter mount the scaffold. Tocqueville venerated Malesherbes, who had fought royal despotism under the Ancien Régime but despite this agreed to defend Louis XVI before the revolutionary Convention. A note found in the Tocqueville archives reads: ‘It is because I am the grandson of M. de Malesherbes that I have written these things.’

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