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De Tocqueville’s Message For America

May 2024
10min read

The French aristocrat's observations of American scoiety are as relevant today as they were when first written

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?

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.”

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.

“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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