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The Man Who Saw America
Alexis de Tocqueville, Theodore Chasseriau, 1850

The Man Who Saw America

Olivier Zunz offers a new portrait of America's most famous French critic, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Gustav Jönsson
The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville
by Olivier Zunz (Princeton University Press, 472 pp., $26.49)

Alexis de Tocqueville, an aristocrat by birth and heart and a democrat as a matter of principle, loved liberty and feared a relentless pursuit of equality at the expense of it. His fears were not groundless: Most of his family had been guillotined in the Terror of 1793–94 that followed the French Revolution. The French, he wrote, “want equality in liberty, and if they cannot have it, they want it still in slavery.” Instead of siding with reactionary legitimists, including his own Ultra-royalist family, he contended that Europe must eventually follow the example set by democratic America.

Tocqueville’s parents were imprisoned following the Revolution, but survived the execution planned for them by Robespierre only because he was guillotined first. The family benefited from the Restoration, and after the Revolution of 1830 Tocqueville swore loyalty to the new regime—hesitantly. His political position was precarious, his career prospects slim, and eager for personal independence, he set out for America with his friend Gustave de Beaumont to study penitentiary systems and test his suspicion that the key to France’s future could be found in America’s present.

In The Man Who Understood Democracy, Olivier Zunz captures not just the ambiguities of Tocqueville’s thought but his essence as a person. Tocqueville emerges in Zunz’s account as an original thinker who could see the weaknesses in his own case without losing conviction. Throughout his life, he strove to fend off both reactionary royalists and radical socialists, yet saw his country caught in cycles of revolutionary violence and tyrannic entrenchment. In crystalline prose—often rewriting sentences twenty times, never picking up his pen before he had read some pages of Montesquieu, Rousseau, or Pascal—he gave every sentence the weight of mathematical truth. Even in his shabbiest moments, he remained intellectually honest: He supported scorched earth tactics in Algeria but could still see the speciousness of la mission civilisatrice.

Tocqueville and Beaumont, during their nine-month trip in 1831 and 1832, saw the greater part of the United States. They witnessed the expulsion of the Choctaw Indians, saw the merciless caning of a black man in Baltimore, spoke with everyone from John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson, and confirmed that women in America were far freer than those in France. The young men traveled through New England and the frontiers, from the Ohio River to the South, where they saw how slaveholding had cut the region off from the North both economically and morally. The lessons Tocqueville learned from these experiences would form the foundations of Democracy in America.

It is to Zunz’s credit that he has managed to summarize the core of Tocqueville’s thought without reducing its subtlety. His prose style, moreover, is serviceable. Perhaps the bracing effect of reading lots of Tocqueville has saved him from academic verbosity. But if his prose is inoffensive, it is also impersonal. His sentences remind me of IKEA-furnished homes: clean, functional, but could belong to anyone. There is no personal voice, no hint of humor or irony, in the whole book. It reads like a textbook.

Even Tocqueville, I feel, was not immune to the European intellectual’s snobbish-yet-lumpen disdain for American culture. Anticipating Gore Vidal’s quip about the “United States of Amnesia,” Tocqueville noted that Americans tended to forget their own history: They lived day-to-day, like an army in the field. He maintained that no country in the world had so few individual geniuses as America, yet he thought that the general level of education was remarkably high—even solitary settlers knew their Shakespeare. But the feeling I get when reading Tocqueville is that he, unlike many English visitors to America, was more unsettled by the country’s mortal sins than its uncouth citizens. Slavery shocked him more than indoors spitting.

Tocqueville suspected that some of the country’s cultural imperfections—like the “utter barbarity” of serving oysters for dessert—were products of America’s national infancy but worried that other such flaws were characteristic of democratic societies in general. He thought the majority’s leaden tyranny was so stifling that no great American writers were likely to emerge. That is a funny view to take right when American letters were really flourishing. Zunz misses several opportunities to mock Tocqueville for similar pronouncements—should it not make us somewhat skeptical towards Tocqueville’s (sometimes) just-so sociology that he would say such things while barely speaking English? Maybe not, but Zunz skirts the issue. Still, Tocqueville’s fears that an inclination toward leveling might give rise to new forms of despotism was not empty. He knew that dissent can be silenced more effectively by ostracism than by law. Even where interracial marriage was legal, social mores made it exceedingly rare.

Yet no country could compare with the United States. Tocqueville saw that Americans, by eschewing administrative centralization, had solved the ancient problem of how to preserve a large republic. He believed that political associations, often pejoratively called “factions” by Americans themselves, were the social basis of liberty: They served as a bulwark against the type of democratic despotism that “leaves the body alone and goes straight for the soul.” In words that seem to prophesy the coming totalitarianism, he warned that the state could grant hollow liberties only to better subjugate its citizens: “It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.” With this passage, Tocqueville shows that democracy’s most skillful partisans have often proven to be its most perceptive critics.

On the matter of race, Tocqueville advocated the full and immediate emancipation of slaves in French colonies, and he took note of the “feudal condescension” with which American women in the South beheld their slaves. His personal secretary, Arthur de Gobineau, wrote Essay on the Inequality of Human Races—which claimed that miscegenation would inevitably lead to civilizational decadence—and sent it to Tocqueville, who, in November 1853, wrote back objecting to his racial “fatalism.” Humans were, Tocqueville thought, unified in equality. Gobineau should have expected the rebuff since Tocqueville had already in 1842 taken the view that “the classification of races according to their physical traits was a materialist doctrine—which, like a corpse, would never produce more than a bunch of earthworms.” In a similar prophetic vein, he foresaw that Gobineau’s theories would be embraced by American slavers and German racial fanatics.

For someone who mistrusted materialism as Tocqueville did, he nonetheless knew the importance of material conditions. Zunz dutifully notes that Tocqueville missed some things: He neglected to study the mercantile harbors of New York and Boston and overlooked the new cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Still, I think that Tocqueville, like Karl Marx, came to understand that ideas can be expressions of property relations. He traveled to Ireland and Britain, where he observed Manchester’s bottomless poverty. He saw misery on such a scale that he could only compare it with Dante’s Inferno: “From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.”

In Tocqueville’s political career, he promoted public welfare reform. In private, he wrote about the Revolution of 1848, making many of the same points about class conflict that Marx made in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Unlike Marx, however, Tocqueville thought the origin of 1848 could best be explained by the socialist rhetoric of the workers’ leaders, what he called their “revolutionary religion.” It would have been interesting to know what Zunz thinks of Tocqueville’s conclusion, but he merely notes that 1848 “has been a topic of profound debate.” This is characteristic: the book introduces us to Tocqueville’s thought but engages very little with it. Occasionally we’re told in passing that Tocqueville said something “correctly” or that he misstated some fact, but that’s about the extent of its critical engagement. It is not so much proved as assumed that Tocqueville was basically right.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup forced Tocqueville out of politics and presented him with new evidence of the recrudescence of Caesarism from the crushed hopes of revolution. In exile, he wrote L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution. He believed that the pre-revolutionary period was characterized by certain social and material improvements: Feudal obligations were eased, peasants owned more property, and individual rights were increasingly recognized. Hence, he wrote,

It is not always going from bad to worse that leads to revolution. What happens most often is that a people that put up with the most oppressive laws without new complaint, as if they did not feel them, rejects those laws violently when the burden is alleviated.

A few years ago, cadres of the Chinese Communist Party were instructed to study Tocqueville’s conclusions. In learning how to snuff out liberty, they paid a grudging compliment to the subtlest of liberty’s champions.

Gustav Jönsson is an essayist and critic based in London. Twitter: @GustavNJonsson

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