- Historic Sites
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
When the American republic was still young, and seemed in the European view to be a daring experiment that might or might not come to anything, Alexis de Tocqueville visited these shores and wrote a book, Democracy in America , which was accepted then and afterward as a brilliant examination of this strange new society. It remains a classic in its field; and now, a full century after its author’s death, a re-examination of what its author really had to say is very much in order.
Accordingly, in this space which is ordinarily reserved for reviews of current books, AMERICAN HERITAGE in this issue turns to a consideration of Tocqueville and his message—a message which is as relevant today, in the time of this nation’s maturity, as it was when it was first written. This article was written by J. A. Lukacs, author of The European Revolution and professor of history at Chestnut Hill and La Salle Colleges, Philadelphia.
Alexis de Tocqueville died a hundred years ago, on April 16,1859, after years of increasing suffering, with his gloomy neurotic wife at his side, in a villa on a hill above Cannes. At that time Cannes and the Riviera were not yet fashionable places. The Tocquevilles had gone there from the foggy brume of Normandy, to profit from the Mediterranean air. It was of no use. His chest was ravaged beyond repair. Thus he succumbed, to be buried quietly in an unpretentious tomb tight against the wall of the parish church in the tiny village of Tocqueville, on the road from Valognes to Cherbourg, a couple of miles inland from the English Channel. The Marble has already grayed and some of the letters are hardly legible now.
One mile to the east lies the Tocqueville château. It is a very French château, with a very Norman courtyard. At least part of one wing, holding a tiny chapel, goes back to the fifteenth century. There is an enormous square pile of concrete, an abandoned German bunker, in the middle of the fields. The château was headquarters for a German military command, and the bunker is a leftover reminder of Hitler’s Atlantic “wall.” The cost of its removal would be exorbitant. Ahead of the courtyard there is a partly weedy pond, and the main part of the château is gutted by fire. Four years ago, when the present Comte de Tocqueville, a lateral descendant, was making some repairs, a blowtorch started a blaze and the central part burned out.
Yet the best room in the château, Alexis de Tocqueville’s erstwhile library, was saved in a miraculous way. It is a dark, big room, with a magnificent tapestry, packed full to the top with books and papers and folders; almost incredibly, that very mass of tightly packed papers somehow refused to catch fire. The flames stopped at the doorway; it is as if they had hesitated, blowing and licking around that portal until they turned their fiery wrath elsewhere.
So the library stands there now, nearly intact, with Tocqueville’s own books, with perhaps the only portrait of their master on the wall. There are a few bills and accounts and some correspondence relating to the Tocqueville papers on the desk still used on occasion by Alexis’ descendants. I felt a faint sense of latent life in the dark room. It was as if the master of the room had been away, on a long and perilous journey but, still, perhaps on his way back…
This is a personal impression of a personal feeling. Yet it is symbolic in at least one sense. It is symbolic of Tocqueville’s century-long round trip in the memory of mankind
A hundred years ago his death stirred not many people. By 1859 Tocqueville had already been near the end of what amounted to a decade of almost complete retirement from public affairs. A few weeks after his death a great European crisis flared up into war not very far from Cannes. In the United States, too, the rumblings of that tragic year 1859 were not conductive to philosophic contemplations about Tocqueville. Most of his American friends were dead by that time. Thus the decline of his reputation continued.
For at least sixty years Tocqueville was largely forgotten. In the United States the two heavy volumes of Lord Bryce on The American Commonwealth over-shadowed Tocqueville’s reputation. In the thirty years after its publication, thirty American editions of Democracy in America had appeared; in the next sixty years their number falls to thirteen. In England the respective numbers are seven and three; in France, thirteen and four.
This was consequent to the political atmosphere of late Victorianism. Between 1865 and 1914 liberalism and industrial democracy grew rapidly throughout the Western World. The prevailing bent of thought was pragmatic. The prevailing political categories were still “liberal” and “conservative,” but the very meanings of these words had begun to change.
Somehow Tocqueville did not fit into either of these categories. How could he be a liberal, he who had warned people so often against putting too much faith into optimistic concepts of sinless human nature, and who had expressed many doubts about such concepts as evolution or industrial progress? And was he a “true” conservative, he who had warned people that they would do better to understand and acquiesce in democracy since, in one form or another, it was here to stay?