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  • Tocqueville’s Recollections in Trump’s America
  • Cheryl B. Welch (bio)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath. Edited by Olivier Zunz. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2017.

Tocqueville is often claimed as an American writer. But of his three great works—Democracy in America, The Old Regime and the Revolution, and The Recollections—only the first has truly seeped into America’s public consciousness.1 Recollections in particular has been difficult to assimilate: too bogged down in disjointed accounts of obscure figures, too concerned with forgotten political maneuvering, altogether too French. Moreover, Recollections reveals an unfamiliar Tocqueville, not the calm fellow traveler whose penetrating reflections on the theater of democracy cast the United States in a starring role, but rather a bitter man in the midst of foreign upheaval who chronicles the political and moral failures of friends and foes, gripped by an obsessive need to assess his own conduct. As Olivier Zunz notes, for American readers, Recollections is an “odd text” (xiv). The United States, however, is now in the midst of a period of disorienting domestic upheaval, a wrenching moment of political reckoning of its own. In such an atmosphere, Tocqueville’s account of what it feels like to experience democracy in collective crisis may at last find an American audience. [End Page 157]

America’s reception of Recollections

It may be instructive to begin with a partial and impressionistic reception history of the English text. Alexis de Tocqueville composed his Souvenirs during the first months of his withdrawal from public life: in Normandy in July of 1850, in Sorrento during the following winter, and in Versailles in the fall of 1851. He gives us a first-hand account of the chaotic unfolding of the revolution of 1848 and its immediate aftermath; of his experiences in the short-lived Second Republic, in which Louis-Napoléon was elected president of France; and of his service as foreign minister in Napoléon’s cabinet. These private reflections were never intended to be read until after his death. In fact, they were not published until 1893, and then only in a truncated form without many of Tocqueville’s most caustic opinions, which had earlier been purged from the manuscript by Gustave de Beaumont and Marie de Tocqueville.2

In 1896 Alexander Teixeira de Mattos published an English translation of the 1893 French edition. In the Political Science Quarterly, the Columbia University historian William Dunning wrote a largely positive, if somewhat dutiful, review of this translation. He noted that the main value of the work was the way it “serves … to strip off the few remaining shreds of ‘glory’ from the incidents of 1848,” and he charitably found that Tocqueville’s almost uniformly unfavorable judgements of “the conspicuous men of the day” were doubtless caused by their failure to live up to the philosophical formulas that were the unconscious foundation of his own thought, which had “made the author’s reputation in his first great work.”3 An anonymous London reviewer for The Academy was less generous. He first noted his disappointment at the brief time period covered by the text and then lamented the incomplete and one-sided nature of the account. “Hence [Tocqueville’s] book is in the nature of an impression, necessarily a fragmentary impression, often a somewhat confused impression, seldom, for the casual reader, an especially fascinating impression. What its value as a document may be to the historian we cannot judge. The casual reader, we fear, will pronounce it disappointing and a trifle dull.”4

In 1949 J. P. Mayer published a new English edition of the Recollections: a reprint of the Mattos translation of 1896, but with the expurgated bits restored. The spate of American reviews of this revised edition reveals that most historians were neither disappointed [End Page 158] nor bored. The Tocqueville scholar Edward Gargan found in the Recollections a “rich source for the study of the Revolution 1848” and J. P. T. Bury, the prolific political historian of nineteenth-century France, noted that it was a source that “no historian of the Second French Republic can afford to...


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