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
Now consider only how this country has changed since 1831. When Tocqueville was here, he saw a powerful but still limited republic, at the edge of the Western World, its energies directed away from Europe, still committed to the toleration of slavery, with a uniquely limited federal bureaucracy, without much of a standing army, with a population that was almost exclusively Protestant and the overwhelming majority of which had come or descended from the inhabitants of the British Isles (Tocqueville called them AngloAmericans throughout). Today this country has become the most powerful nation in the world, ready to conquer the moon, with military bases in fifty countries throughout the globe, carrying a principal voice in the affairs of Europe, committed against slavery, maintaining military establishments to the amount of about fifty billion dollars a year, with a governmental bureaucracy of enormous proportions, a nation whose population is no longer predominantly Anglo-Saxon in its origins, and where there is even a tendency toward a Catholic majority.
The contrast is tremendous. How come, then, that almost everything Tocqueville wrote about Jackson’s America in 1831–1832 is still so true about this very different America today? How come that we may open Tocqueville’s book, written 125 years ago, at virtually any page and find passages that are directly and clearly pertinent to the problems of the United States today?
The answer, I think, lies in a quality of Tocqueville’s which has been seldom mentioned at all. It is that Tocqueville fully recognized what may be called a change in the texture of history. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the first historian of the democratic age. For we must consider that though proclamations of the ideals of political democracy are marked on crucial milestones in the history of the past four or five centuries, the full extent of majority rule did not effect the nations of the Western World until almost our very lifetime. Jacksonian America was an early example of such a national society. And the task which Tocqueville had set for himself was “to penetrate beneath accidental history to soled history, or beneath history to the physiology of peoples.”
This is how his ungenerous critic, Émile Faguet, put it sixty years ago; but Faguet was critical of that self-imposed task. Yet this is why the value of Tocqueville’s work is so permanent. Contrary to the general assumption, his purpose was not a book about America but about this new kind of democracy, for the sake of France and of Europe. And there is, for once, a seldom-cited passage from Democracy in America which our statesmen in Washington would do well to ponder today: Those who, after having read this book, should imagine that my intention in writing it was to propose the laws and customs of the Anglo-Americans for the imitation of all democratic communities would make a great mistake; they must have paid more attention to the form than the substance of my thought. My aim has been to show, by the example of America, that laws, and especially customs, may allow a democratic people to remain free. But I am very far from thinking that we ought to follow the example of the American democracy and copy the means that it has employed to attain this end; for I am well aware of the influence which the nature of a country and its political antecedents exercise upon its political constitution; and I should regard it as a great misfortune for mankind if liberty were to exist all over the world under the same features.
For Democracy in America is, in more than one sense, a still unexplored book. Especially the second volume, filled with daring generalizations, is seldom being read through; its implications have seldom been studied with any great effort of concentration. Nor is our knowledge of Tocqueville the man very extensive.
Except for the brilliant short introductory biographies by Redier and Mayer, little has been written about his life. True, his personal history may not have been exceptionally dramatic: his wife, a middle-class Englishwoman, was not very attractive; he never belonged to a cohesive political group; his public career was spasmodic; he spent the last part of his life in self-imposed retirement from the world; he died at the age of 54. We have few pictures of him; there is no photograph or daguerreotype. There is the drawing by Chassériau, showing a serious aristocratic mien, a delicate expression combined with a strong look from those exceptionally perceptive eyes. the oil portrait in the chateau is rather poor. We know that he was a small, bony man, suffering from a pulmonary disease. An American visitor at the Paris Embassy once made fun of the sudden agitation of his English speech, which seemed so inconsistent, coming out with so much fire from the mouth of this little Frenchman.
Even though a renewed interest in Tocqueville has now taken place, our knowledge and our understanding of him may still be superficial. We have only begun to recognize the rich depth of his writings; and our understanding is still hindered by the automatic application of inadequate categories to his thought. He is regarded a sociologist when, in reality, he was a historian—but a new kind of historian. If this is not evident from Democracy in America , where his treatment is, of course, not chronological, it should be certainly evident from his Old Regime and the Revolution . People regard him as an aristocrat who criticized democracy when, in reality, he was critical of many aristocratic pretensions and he saw the will of God in the coming democratic age.