The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville. By Olivier Zunz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022. 472 pp.
Does Alexis de Tocqueville—the author of the nineteenth-century classic Democracy in America—still matter? Why should any of us today pay heed to a long-dead French aristocrat and his travelogue of a long-dead version of America?
Tocqueville (1805–59) is often invoked for his supposedly deep insights into our country (a few of which, like the line that “America is great because she is good,” he never ventured), and for observations that feel like they could have been written yesterday. Who has not spent a few minutes marveling at Tocqueville’s evergreen depiction of a U.S. presidential election season, or at his uncanny prediction that the United States and Russia would one day inherit the world? (Admittedly, that latter prognostication probably does not impress the way it did during and right after the Cold War, and might seem positively bizarre to a Zoomer who knows Russia, if he knows it at all, as the home of a tinpot dictator.) But, regardless of whether bits of Tocqueville still resonate, can there be any doubt that the whites-only settler-colonial project that he toured for nine and a half months in 1831 and 1832 is a far cry from the multicultural, multiracial, raucously democratic, global superpower we call the United States almost two centuries later? Could a young person today be forgiven for wondering what we can possibly glean, aside from a few nuggets of historical interest, about democracy in America from Democracy in America?
Then there is the matter of the author himself. An uncharitable reader of French-American historian Olivier Zunz’s magisterial new biography, The Man Who Understood Democracy—perhaps looking to indict Tocqueville as yet another defunct Caucasian due for cancelation—would find in the Frenchman’s oeuvre plenty of kindling for the fires of indignation. As an expert on prison reform—the study of which was, in fact, the ostensible purpose of his trip to America—Tocqueville advocated the solitary confinement of prisoners for the duration of their sentences, and defended this pitiless scheme against the objections of more levelheaded contemporaries who, with even their nineteenth-century understandings of human psychology, perceived it correctly as a route to madness (p. 206). As a candidate for, and later member of, the French Chamber of Deputies during the so-called July Monarchy (1830–48), he not only cheered the conquest and settlement of Algeria, but championed scorched-earth policies (such as crop burning and hostage taking) meant to pacify local resistance, believing them to be “unfortunate necessities. . . . to which any people that wants to wage war on the Arabs is obliged to submit” (p. 248).1 Of my faith, Islam, he said to his assistant Arthur de Gobineau (who would later go on to author an 1853 tract, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, that continues to inspire chauvinists on both sides of the Atlantic): “There have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Mohammed” (p. 243).
The great advocate of democracy once opposed universal suffrage in France (p. 141), writing in his diary that “I absolutely reject any lowering of the property qualification or equivalent additions” (p. 196), and tsk-tsked the election to the U.S. Congress of Davy Crockett—“a man with no education, who can barely read, who owns no property, and who has no permanent address but lives in the woods and spends his life hunting, selling game in order to live” (p. 92). In a now-forgotten Memoir on Pauperism, this child of Norman aristocrats, whom Zunz notes had had “minimal” exposure to society’s less fortunate (p. 143), contended that public assistance did not alleviate poverty but instead helped to perpetuate it—rehearsing what are by now standard arguments in some quarters about how the dole fosters dependency (p. 146). And though the author of Democracy in America fancied himself a political scientist—declaring that “a world totally new demands a new political science” (p. 36)—at times his science could be pretty weak, as evidenced by his assertion that differences in the temperaments of French settlers in Canada (“a tranquil, moral, religious people”) and their counterparts in Louisiana (“anxious, dissolute, and loose in all respects”) were wholly attributable to climate (p. 95).
Of course, despite these flaws, foibles, and peccadilloes—including, Zunz intimates, a penchant for infidelity to his English-born wife, Mary Mottley (p. 245)—no one who reads the Journal of Democracy regularly can have any doubts about Tocqueville’s importance, or entertain any thoughts of consigning him to some historical ash heap. Indeed, the Journal can be read as a decades-long, running testimonial to Tocqueville’s ongoing and well-deserved influence. A quick search of our archive reveals that the Frenchman has appeared in 148 of the 2,468 essays that the Journal has published since its founding in 1990. If that does not seem like a lot, consider that Aristotle only appears 28 times during that period, and Plato 25. And though Tocqueville is most often invoked in our pages (perhaps most famously by Robert D. Putnam in his 1995 essay on America’s cramped communal life) for his observations about the importance of “civil society” to a functioning democracy, that is but one of his many intellectual bequests to those who study democratic government or who work to get and keep it around the world.
Indeed, Tocqueville’s first mention in our pages comes in an October 1990 symposium on South Africa’s democratic prospects, in which a liberal politician from that country fretted that the “habits of the heart” which Tocqueville thought so important to democracy’s emergence and survival were almost entirely lacking in the land of apartheid.2 Other Journal authors, among them the historian of Russia, Martin Malia (1924–2004); the scholar of European democracy, Giuseppe Di Palma; and the political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941–2013), have investigated the tension that Tocqueville identified between liberty and equality; cited his observations on the causes of revolutions; and explored his views on the relationship between religious faith and democratic citizenship. In short, it seems safe to say that, for as long as democracy remains an object of study for scholars and an aspiration for citizens, we will be reading Alexis de Tocqueville.
But Tocqueville’s value for our present age lies in more than what he said about democracy. The philosopher John Stuart Mill, a friend of Tocqueville’s, once wrote to him that the worth of Democracy in America lay “less in the conclusions than in the mode of arriving at them” (p. 199), and no reader of Zunz’s virtuosic account of Tocqueville’s life and work can escape the conclusion that the line applies to the man as much as it does to his most famous book. In other words: Tocqueville matters not just because of what he thought, but because of how he thought.
First, Tocqueville understood the need to think comparatively. In a letter to a friend—one of the many that Zunz excavates from Tocqueville’s extensive correspondence—he explained that “by a singular disability of our minds, we fail to adequately see things as they are, despite seeing them clearly and in broad daylight, without placing other objects beside them” (p. 70). And though this method sometimes failed him—as in his belief that cultural differences between Acadians and Cajuns validated a crude climatic determinism—it also enabled him to avoid more significant errors. When Tocqueville’s former assistant, Gobineau, argued for the existence of inherent differences among the races and inveighed against migration and miscegenation as polluting, Tocqueville denounced his efforts as a “horse breeder’s philosophy” and used a simple historical comparison to illustrate to his former protégé the folly of declaring one group of humans inherently superior to another: “Julius Caesar,” he wrote, “would have willingly written a book to prove that the savages he had met in Britain did not belong to the same race as the Romans and that the latter were destined thus by nature to rule the world while the former were destined to vegetate in one of its corners” (p. 325). In short: Only by widening our temporal and spatial apertures can we understand that which is right in front of us.
Second, though Tocqueville certainly knew when to dismiss an argument out of hand (as he did with the harebrained notions of Gobineau), he was more often than not inclined to give an opposing argument its due. “The deeper one goes into any subject,” he explained to a friend, “the vaster it becomes, and behind every fact and observation lurks a doubt” (p. 119). Thus, writes Zunz, “Tocqueville rarely made a point without giving ample space to the opposing view” (p. 119). While this tendency to steel-man the opposition meant that “readers often found ammunition for positions contrary to the one Tocqueville favored” (p. 119)—such as when Sir Robert Peele invoked Tocqueville’s discussion of the tyranny of the majority to claim that the Frenchman shared his view that “English institutions were superior to their American counterparts” (p. 159)—it also meant that Tocqueville could do more than just preach to the converted. He could convert the unconverted as well.
Third, Tocqueville possessed the ability (rare these days) to change his mind. Many of the objectionable opinions that I catalogued earlier in this essay are ones he abandoned when evidence and experience proved their imprudence. For instance, Zunz tells us that Tocqueville “eventually disavowed” his dim view of the corrupting effects of public assistance “after visiting England and Ireland . . . and seeing real poverty for himself” (p. 146). He reports that when a French politician later asked Tocqueville for a copy of the document in which he laid out his by-now-discarded views, he “reluctantly sent it with the injunction to ‘accept it for what it is, and then promptly forget it,’” (p. 146). On France’s colonization of Algeria, Tocqueville too experienced a conversion. Though he remained a champion of French empire (lest Britain fill in wherever France did not), toward the end of his life, his ardor for sowing the conquered lands with Frenchmen cooled considerably. “The foreign settler harms, or seems to harm, in a thousand different ways the particular interests common to all men,” he wrote to a friend. “I have no doubt,” he added,” that the Arabs and Kabyles of Algeria are more irritated by the presence of our settlers there than by that of our soldiers” (p. 329). He also came around on universal suffrage in his home country, arguing that it was “the only way to govern from a position of strength” (p. 275).
Perhaps most impressively, Tocqueville’s entire intellectual itinerary is a testament to the triumph of reason over identity. “I am an aristocrat by instinct,” he once wrote, but “I have an intellectual preference for democratic institutions” (p. 187). That he developed such a preference is close to astonishing, given the horrors visited upon his family in the name of popular sovereignty. Not long before Tocqueville’s birth, France’s First Republic (1792–1804) dispatched scores of his relatives to the guillotine, including his great-grandfather, the lawyer and statesman Malesherbes—who served as a defense counsel to Louis XVI, and whose memory, Zunz tells us, Tocqueville cherished. Only the Thermidorean Reaction of July 1794 saved Tocqueville’s father, Hervé, and his mother, Madeleine, from their own interviews with the executioner. Hervé was for the rest of his life an ultraroyalist, and Madeleine would sing songs of mourning for the slaughtered king (p. 13), yet their son’s mind would not be shackled by that bloody history.
Thus, when the 25-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in May 1831, it was not to bury democracy, but to study it. He arrived wanting to understand “why it is feasible in one place and not feasible in another” (p. 32), and left committed to seeing “the taste for liberty developed in all the political institutions” of his homeland (p. 172). That one who could have been forgiven for styling himself democracy’s enemy not only approached his inquiry with an open mind, but emerged from it democracy’s friend, is a powerful demonstration of the qualities that make this man of the nineteenth century so necessary in the twenty-first.
1. For those who are aware of it, Tocqueville’s record on colonialism still rankles. As one Algerian scholar recently argued, the “continued praise and adoration” of Tocqueville, despite his support for the subjugation of North Africa, is “an epistemic violence to so many of us.” See Lina Benabdallah, “Racism in Tocqueville in Algeria and Epistemic Violence,” Aljazeera, 7 July 2020, .
2. Denis Worrall, “South Africa’s Future: Symposium—Democratic Party,” Journal of Democracy 1 (Fall 1990): 45–48.
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