De Tocqueville’s Message For America

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“I have always said,” he wrote in one of his finest personal letters, “that it is more difficult to stabilize and maintain liberty in our new democratic societies than in certain aristocratic societies of the past. But I shall never dare think it impossible. And I pray to God lest He inspire me with the idea that one may as well despair of trying.”

Tocqueville’s greatness is latent in this very condition: he transcends categories. He was neither an academic sociologist nor a professional historian. Nor it is possible to solve the problem by assigning him into ambiguous categories of a conservative liberal or a liberal conservative. The very temperament of this man was such that he could never rest content with mere compromise, with moderation for moderation’s sake. Tocqueville, therefore, is not in the middle of these categories. He transcends both.

From Democracy in America alone we should grasp the enduring truth that its author was neither a skeptical aristocrat nor an academic sociologist nor a defeatist conservative but, as Edward Everett put it long ago, the sincerest foreign friend this democracy has yet had. Nor is there any reason to revise now, 120 years later, what perhaps the first American reviewer of Tocqueville’s book wrote in the American Monthly Magazine . In tracing the causes of American liberty, this anonymous reviewer wrote in 1838, “in examining how far they continue to influence our conduct, manners, and opinions, and in searching for means to prevent their decay or destruction, the intelligent American reader can find no better guide.”

—J. A. Lukacs

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