In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Cancel Tocqueville?
  • Tarek Masoud (bio)
The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville. By Olivier Zunz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022. 472 pp.

Does Alexis de Tocqueville—the author of the nineteenth-century classic Democracy in America—still matter? Why should any of us today pay heed to a long-dead French aristocrat and his travelogue of a long-dead version of America?

Tocqueville (1805–59) is often invoked for his supposedly deep insights into our country (a few of which, like the line that "America is great because she is good," he never ventured), and for observations that feel like they could have been written yesterday. Who has not spent a few minutes marveling at Tocqueville's evergreen depiction of a U.S. presidential election season, or at his uncanny prediction that the United States and Russia would one day inherit the world? (Admittedly, that latter prognostication probably does not impress the way it did during and right after the Cold War, and might seem positively bizarre to a Zoomer who knows Russia, if he knows it at all, as the home of a tinpot dictator.) But, regardless of whether bits of Tocqueville still resonate, can there be any doubt that the whites-only settler-colonial project that he toured for nine and a half months in 1831 and 1832 is a far cry from the multicultural, multiracial, raucously democratic, global superpower we call the United States almost two centuries later? Could a young person today be forgiven for wondering what we can possibly glean, aside from a few nuggets of historical interest, about democracy in America from Democracy in America? [End Page 172]

Then there is the matter of the author himself. An uncharitable reader of French-American historian Olivier Zunz's magisterial new biography, The Man Who Understood Democracy—perhaps looking to indict Tocqueville as yet another defunct Caucasian due for cancelation—would find in the Frenchman's oeuvre plenty of kindling for the fires of indignation. As an expert on prison reform—the study of which was, in fact, the ostensible purpose of his trip to America—Tocqueville advocated the solitary confinement of prisoners for the duration of their sentences, and defended this pitiless scheme against the objections of more levelheaded contemporaries who, with even their nineteenth-century understandings of human psychology, perceived it correctly as a route to madness (p. 206). As a candidate for, and later member of, the French Chamber of Deputies during the so-called July Monarchy (1830–48), he not only cheered the conquest and settlement of Algeria, but championed scorched-earth policies (such as crop burning and hostage taking) meant to pacify local resistance, believing them to be "unfortunate necessities. … to which any people that wants to wage war on the Arabs is obliged to submit" (p. 248).2 Of my faith, Islam, he said to his assistant Arthur de Gobineau (who would later go on to author an 1853 tract, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, that continues to inspire chauvinists on both sides of the Atlantic): "There have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Mohammed" (p. 243).

The great advocate of democracy once opposed universal suffrage in France (p. 141), writing in his diary that "I absolutely reject any lowering of the property qualification or equivalent additions" (p. 196), and tsktsked the election to the U.S. Congress of Davy Crockett—"a man with no education, who can barely read, who owns no property, and who has no permanent address but lives in the woods and spends his life hunting, selling game in order to live" (p. 92). In a now-forgotten Memoir on Pauperism, this child of Norman aristocrats, whom Zunz notes had had "minimal" exposure to society's less fortunate (p. 143), contended that public assistance did not alleviate poverty but instead helped to perpetuate it—rehearsing what are by now standard arguments in some quarters about how the dole fosters dependency (p. 146). And though the author of Democracy in America fancied himself a political scientist—declaring that "a world totally new demands a new political science" (p. 36)—at times his...