- Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life
In this fine biography, the British historian Hugh Brogan has put a life to the name made famous by the classic Democracy in America. The effort makes for a surprisingly tumultuous story. Alexis de Tocqueville was born into a noble family in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The Jacobins had executed Tocqueville’s great-grandfather, the noted jurist Guillaume Chrétien Lamoignon de Malesherbes, along with other members of the family, and Tocqueville’s father Hervé was imprisoned. But Hervé survived, the family retained its estates, and Tocqueville himself enjoyed a life of privilege.
As he matured, the young aristocrat started to show signs of intellectual promise. After considering a career in the army, indulging in some ill-advised romantic dalliances, and fighting at least one duel, Tocqueville began to study law in 1823. He also began writing, developing a distinctive style that combined an eye for detail with a search for broader meanings. As a deputy prosecutor—in the American vernacular—he met another young lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont, who became his lifelong friend.
Tocqueville’s interests ranged far beyond the law; he seemed convinced at an early age that the triumph of egalitarianism was inevitable. The problem for France, deeply polarized between Left and Right, would be reconciling equality, which Tocqueville feared would produce an insipid conformity, with meaningful freedom. Tocqueville struggled throughout his life to adapt the aristocratic traditions he revered to the [End Page 139] demands of a more liberal age. Brogan, understandably, struggles to categorize Tocqueville, calling him at one point “an active, improving conservative” (390), and at another “a very conservative liberal” (747).
In the spring of 1829, Tocqueville attended the lectures of the noted historian François Guizot at the Sorbonne. They suggested to Tocqueville that the professor’s sociological approach to history could be applied to current politics. Tocqueville had half-heartedly supported Charles X until the king was forced from office in 1830; Tocqueville then took a loyalty oath, without enthusiasm, to Louis-Philippe. Disillusioned with French politics, Tocqueville and Beaumont decided to go to America. Their ostensible purpose was to study American prisons, but in reality, Tocqueville would visit the United States, he said, “to see what a great republic is like” (145). In America, they found a country even more unlike France than they had expected. Tocqueville was prone to superficial observations, and he made mistakes. He did not understand American political parties, he underestimated the influence of the presidency, he exaggerated the dangers of majority rule, and he thought Protestantism was dying out. But the prison mission forced him to deal with specifics, and the most original part of his work, according to Brogan, was his treatment of the American legal system. Most importantly, Tocqueville concluded to his own bewilderment that democracy seemed to be working in America.
Back in France, Tocqueville began to write in violent spurts in the fall of 1834. The result, Brogan writes, was “the greatest book ever written on the United States” (278). What Tocqueville thought about the democracy he described is open to debate. Brogan believes the French Revolution had left Tocqueville fearful of the dangers of majority tyranny, but that his months in America had converted him to republicanism. His criticisms of democracy, Brogan argues, were in part a tactical device to make Democracy in America more palatable to the French monarchists he hoped to persuade. Tocqueville’s greatest insight, Brogan argues, was an emphasis on origins. American democracy had begun with the “religious republicans” of New England. Time, geography, an enlightened legal system, and “les moeurs”—”the intellectual and moral tendencies” of the people—had allowed the United States to develop a democratic system (269–70).
When the first volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, it made its author famous and attracted the attention of such luminaries as John Stuart Mill. Tocqueville published a less successful sequel in 1840; [End Page 140] Americans typically read the books as one today. Brogan devotes a chapter...