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De Tocqueville’s Message For America
The French aristocrat's observations of American scoiety are as relevant today as they were when first written
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
At times, when he was not forgotten at all, Tocqueville was regarded as an archaic, aristocratic, sententious thinker, a “conservative liberal” or a “liberal conservative” of the receding past. A few decades after his death, the author of a Parisian comedy, Le monde ou l’on s’ennuie , made the audience smirk as the stiff and ambitious little provincial wife introduced one of her statements with the words: “ comme disait M. de Tocqueville ”—“as M. de Tocqueville said.”
Yet there were exceptions. They stand out today, in retrospect. Our generation has begun to rediscover not only Tocqueville but Acton and Burckhardt and Dicey and Dilthey and Droysen among the greatest historical thinkers of the past hundred years; it is significant that during their lifetime all of these men, independently of each other, discovered and admired Tocqueville. His name crops up, here and there, from their notes. Acton, who at first frets uneasily about Tocqueville, ends up by jotting down: “One cannot find fault with him. He is as just as Aristides.” Thirty-odd years ago a lonely and brooding Frenchman, M. Antoine Redier, began to be intrigued by Tocqueville; he read his books, looked into his papers, traced the last years of his life, and arrived at the, at first, astonishing conclusion that here was perhaps the greatest thinker of the past three or four centuries. Appropriately enough, he entitled his little book Comme Disait M. de Tocqueville .
The book is out of print now. It still failed to stir many people in France in the 1920’s. It was from the hot ashes of German ruin that Tocqueville’s memory began to rise again during our own lifetime. The spectacle of a Hitler coming to power largely through the democratic process belatedly awakened many minds to the realization that here was something new—or, rather, that it was the very danger that Tocqueville had first described: the tyranny of the majority, a democratic possibility that the accepted liberal categories of thought had refused to admit at all.
Meanwhile, in America the intellectual enthusiasm generated during the first period of the New Deal was wearing thin as many liberals themselves learned how the vulgar exploitation of majority sentiment may prove to be a great danger to free democracies. It is for this reason that, ever since the end of the last war, Tocqueville has gained a new American reputation. An excellent full edition of Democracy in America was published in 1945; the next thirteen years saw perhaps a dozen new editions and paperbacks, not only of Democracy in America but also of the Recollections and of the Old Regime and the Revolution . Nowadays there is hardly a month in which one of our more serious columnists or commentators on public affairs does not cite some pertinent Tocquevillean passage. Meanwhile in France, with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, the first complete edition of Tocqueville’s collected works has begun under the editorship of a devoted scholar, J. P. Mayer.
Of course, the Tocquevillean heritage is a very large one. The full edition of his papers may run to more than twenty volumes, most of it correspondence, and very valuable letters these are indeed. There is hardly a dull page in them. For one thing, they deal with an extraordinary variety of themes: religion, politics, philosophy, race, economics, literature, the tendency of manners, sexual morality, Asia, Russia, India.…For another matter, Tocqueville was a superb stylist. He furnishes us with a potential mine of quotations. It would be easy to string some of them together, taking them from Democracy in America alone, to impress every reader with the pertinent wisdom of a great prophet.
For Tocqueville predicted not only the possibility of majoritarian tyranny but almost every one of its actual and potential dangers. He predicted, among other things, the Civil War, the extinction of the Indians, the lasting character of the Negro problem, the future population of the Union, the coming shape of American public education, juvenile delinquency due to the loosening of parental authority, the future of American Catholicism, the coming ascendancy of America and Russia over most of the world.
It is always tempting to quote all of that now famous paragraph which concludes the first volume of Democracy in America , about a future America and a future Russia, one standing for freedom, the other for servitude; “their starting-point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”