- The Chicago companion to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
In the classic film, Born Yesterday, a wealthy but unscrupulous businessman hires a smart newspaper reporter to tutor his ditzy mistress in proper etiquette. But she learns more than manners, eventually coming to reject the political corruption of her powerful lover while reaffirming the core values of democracy. In the otherwise unremarkable remake of this film in the 1990s, the savvy reporter gives the heroine a copy of Democracy in America to help effect this transformation. Today “students and other serious readers, especially those who are encountering [the Democracy] for the first time” (p. 3), have James Schleifer as an insightful tutor for their study of Democracy in America. His new Companion is both a superb guide to understanding Tocqueville’s complex intentions in writing this most important of all books on the United States, and a reminder of why the resulting text has helped generations of readers understand democracy and cope with its many challenges.
Arguably the world’s foremost authority on Democracy in America, James Schleifer is eminently qualified to guide our reading of the text. His The Making of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” originally published in 1980, relies on manuscript sources and correspondence [End Page 191] to recreate in careful detail the process by which Tocqueville composed the two volumes of the Democracy, thereby persuasively clarifying many matters of interpretation. Co-editor of De la Démocratie en Amérique in the French Pléiade series, Schleifer more recently has translated Eduardo Nolla’s massive critical edition of the Democracy, a translation that appears in a four-volume bilingual French/English edition produced by Liberty Fund. In the concise Companion here under review (172 pp.), Schleifer introduces the neophyte to Tocqueville’s masterpiece, but also instructs the expert by discreetly sharing the insights that result from his long engagement with the text.
In Part One, Schleifer discusses what he calls the “contexts” of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, providing essential biographical and historical information in the form of nuanced answers to seemingly simple but actually quite difficult questions: what kind of a man was Tocqueville? how was Democracy in America written? what were the sources and important historical contexts of his book? how are the two volumes of Democracy in America organized? Without overburdening the reader, Schleifer outlines and balances the many factors that played a part in shaping the work, moving from the most concrete (books we know he read, discussions we know he had) to the more abstract (the various historical and philosophical conversations in which Tocqueville scholars have situated the Democracy).
Schleifer’s own interpretive insights come to the fore in his discussion of the style and structure of the work. In many ways this part of the Companion serves as his own commentary on how the intimate experience of tracing the genesis of the Democracy and translating Tocqueville’s published text and unpublished alternate passages caused him to pay attention to Tocqueville the writer and rhetorician. The contemporary reader, Schleifer argues, needs to be aware of Tocqueville’s eagerness to persuade his original readers without boring or alienating them: hence the many syllogistic and deductive sentences, the use of indirection, the eagerness to test his prose on his trusted interlocutors, and the struggles with terminology and definitions that inevitably leave some confusion in their wake. Schleifer also invites the reader to consider the question of whether the texts published in 1835 and 1840 should properly be considered [End Page 192] as separate works, even as he modestly defends his own position that the continuities in topics and themes justify treating them as unitary.
Parts Two and Three discuss these topics and themes. Here Schleifer had to make severe choices. He concentrates on the essential aspects and interpretive conundrums surrounding the most important of Tocqueville’s idées mères: equality of conditions, the coming of democracy, the centrality of mœurs, the demands of liberty. Without shirking the difficulty posed by Tocqueville’s constant reconsiderations of these themes...