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June 28, 2007

David Womersley asks, was De Tocqueville in some sense Gibbonian? Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution - Hugh Brogan

Posted by David Womersley

Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution
by Hugh Brogan
Pp. 724. London: Profile, 2006
Hardback, £30

Does anyone of any intellectual taste ever quite get over the shock of first reading De Tocqueville? Particularly for those raised in an Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition, De Tocqueville's cocktail of brilliant generalisations, imperiously (meretriciously?) floating free of tethering facts - how irrelevant seem those commentators who have complained that De Tocqueville knew too little about the statistics of grain production in the state of Maryland, or of the paint industry in Massachusetts, to speak with the confidence he did (though if you examine the footnotes of Democracy in America carefully, you will see that there is more particular research in it than you might at first imagine) - all this seems like the very embodiment of what it is to lead the life of the mind. All sniping thoughts are, at least for the moment of reading, banished by the strong magic of the performance.

What is the source of this mental style, at once Brahmin-like in its concentration and almost demagogue-like in its rhetorical appeal? De Tocqueville was born in 1805 into an aristocratic Breton family, staunch in its Bourbon loyalties. Trained for the law, at twenty-five he swore allegiance to the desperately un-kingly Louis-Philippe, served as a deputy, and then briefly became Foreign Minister during the Second Republic. He survived until 1859, a victim to ill-health, trying to cobble together anti-Bonapartist coalitions, and composing another great work, L'ancien régime et la révolution (1848). It is a good parlour game to imagine how De Tocqueville might have appeared in the pages of Zola. Although aristocratic by birth, then, he lived through some of the most disruptive political episodes of nineteenth-century France. His blood oriented him towards the very different objects of his experience; but it did not lead him blindly to dismiss them.

In 1830 he and his friend Gustave de Beaumont had visited America to study its penitentiary system, a trip which bore its first, rather astringent, fruit in 1833 in the jointly-authored On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application to France, but then found its deeper expression in De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. The world would have to wait for over a century before prison-visiting again produced dazzling literary results, with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966). The first volume was published to great acclaim, and established De Tocqueville's reputation. The second volume was greeted with a measure of indifference, a reception which understandably disconcerted its author, but which is perhaps no bad indicator of the different styles and purposes (although not of the respective qualities) of the two volumes.

Democracy in America is, as one of its recent editors has reminded us, a book about both democracy and America. The two subjects are wedded in De Tocqueville's mind because he senses that the tide of human affairs has, for the time being, set in a democratic direction, and he recognises in America the country in which this development is occurring in its purest and most accelerated form. In America, such is the premise of De Tocqueville's treatment, can be glimpsed all that the future might hope, and all that it should fear, from the strengthening democracy towards which we are heading. For, while De Tocqueville at one level admires the energies that democracy liberates in a society, he also diagnoses how the democratic condition can result in what we might call a narrowing of the bandwidth of human nature. This clustering to the mean perturbed him, and that perturbation makes itself felt in his peroration:

. . . I feel full of fears and full of hopes. I see great perils that it is possible to ward off; great evils that one can avoid or restrain, and I become more and more firm in the belief that to be honest and prosperous, it is still enough for democratic nations to wish it.
It is this interplay between apprehension and exhilaration which is the hallmark of De Tocqueville's style of thought.

How can we understand De Tocqueville's commitment to liberty in the light of his aristocratic attachments and what can intermittently look to us like anti-liberal sentiments? His chief concern was the preservation of the European heritage, and the convulsions of French history had instructed him in how endangered was its preservation. Democracy was inevitable - it was, he clearly saw, the port towards which the sail of humanity was set; but how were its effects to be moderated and channelled so that it became protective of, rather than destructive to, the fabric of European society?

Brogan relates a fascinating detail of a visit to Rome, in which De Tocqueville was woken from sleep by a procession of monks. For De Tocqueville - whose intellectual mentors included François Guizot, the translator of Gibbon, and Benjamin Constant, the lover of Mme de Staël, the daughter of Gibbon's former sweetheart, Suzanne Necker (née Curchod) - the resonance of that experience with Gibbon's account of the moment of conception of The Decline and Fall must have been electric:

It was at Rome . . . as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.
Was De Tocqueville in some sense Gibbonian? Like Gibbon, who elected to become the historian of a massive historical event, and thereby committed himself to tracing the rippling energies it set off through human society, De Tocqueville used the lens of democracy to focus on the path and destination of human affairs. In so doing, he became the analyst of a transforming dynamic in human history, while at the same time his deepest attachments were to the values and mores menaced by that dynamic (although it is worth remembering that he - unlike Burke - had approved of the first phase of the French Revolution).

Brogan's book is the best commentary so far to help us with the biographical side of that process, just as the researches of Eduardo Nolla on the complex manuscript of Democracy in America are our best guide to its textual ramifications.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Er, Tocqueville's family was Norman, not Breton.

Posted by: Alan Kahan at July 28, 2008 06:05 PM
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