Lucien Jaume’s Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty is one of the most important books on Tocqueville’s life and works to [End Page 115] appear in recent years. Jaume is an eminent historian of nineteenth-century France, and this book combines his knowledge of French context with new research into Tocqueville’s intellectual biography. Arthur Goldhammer’s translation is excellent, and throughout the text Jaume pushes the boundaries of how historians understand Tocqueville’s works.
Jaume’s text is composed of five books. The first three establish the basic interpretative framework, while the last two apply it to making sense of Tocqueville’s engagements with notable contemporaries. The American reader may find Jaume’s Tocqueville a bit unfamiliar at first, as the interpretation here is almost exclusively French. This is actually an important part of Jaume’s method for, as he reminds us, Tocqueville’s book, “spoke to French readers, and spoke to them of France . . . America was above all a mirror of France” (p. 5).
In the first book, Jaume reconstructs Tocqueville’s intellectual context though a look at revolutionary socialist and reactionary Catholic thought, even connecting these rival political positions to very different views of the American republic. In a subtle and well-constructed reading, Jaume demonstrates how Tocqueville’s view of political authority in Democracy in America is a response to these French debates on the nature of sovereignty.
Books II and III examine Tocqueville’s sociology and moralist style. Here Jaume consistently pushes the boundaries of how historians view Tocqueville’s relationship to political Catholicism. The sections on Tocqueville’s debt to the sociology of Catholic reactionaries particularly stand out, while Book III is the most systematic look to date at Tocqueville’s Jansenist-inflected moralist style.
The last two books explore the theoretical payoff of this approach. Book IV returns to debates over political authority in France, this time through a contrast with the leader of the liberal Doctrinaires, François Guizot. Jaume’s portrait of two very different understandings of the old regime supports this reading well: Tocqueville romanticized the long-dead “local liberties” of townships and provincial parlements, while Guizot admired the role of a centralizing monarchy in creating the nation of France. [End Page 116]
Jaume’s final chapter and conclusion examine Tocqueville’s family relations, from the intimate to the distant. Jaume demonstrates that Tocqueville grew up in an “aristocratic culture” that made him sensitive to the duty of service, the desire for independence, and the dangers of despotism. Jaume uses this aristocratic legacy to argue that—rather than changing his mind during the writing of the second volume of Democracy in America—Tocqueville had a consistent view of “two despotisms, that of absolute monarchy and that of absolute democracy . . . as, for Aristotle, each pure form of government has its corresponding pathological form” (p. 323). This is an important rebuttal to an old argument in Tocqueville scholarship, but the use of Aristotle points to the only weakness in this excellent book. As Jaume’s analysis shows, despite the claim to be a “liberal of a new type” (p. 5), Tocqueville is critical of Constant and Guizot, while agreeing with Aristotle and Rousseau. A more sustained look at the republican themes in Tocqueville’s thought (especially Rousseau) could have helped bring this aspect of his political thought into clearer view.
Lucien Jaume pushes our understanding of Tocqueville’s intellectual biography and political theory in so many new directions that this small oversight is easily forgiven. His book will not be the final word in Tocqueville studies, but it will be one of the first books read and cited by a generation of Tocqueville scholars.
David Selby is a visiting scholar of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and adjunct faculty of political science at Ohlone Junior College in Fremont, California. Trained in the history of political thought, he has written and published on Alexis de Tocqueville’s life and works in the Tocqueville Review and...