The Trouble With Tocqueville

More than 200 European writers toured the United States in the decades after the Napoleonic Wars, publishing mostly contemptuous accounts of the makeshift nation for the delight of their own provincial readers back home. Perhaps none was so ill equipped as the ambivalent aristocrat manqué Alexis de Tocqueville, and perhaps no work so unlikely to endure as his kitchen-sink portrait Democracy in America. Tocqueville was just 25 when he began his journey in 1831, the year of Darwin's voyage, a capable but undistinguished student who had become a provincial administrator, a well-born bureaucrat who doubted the legitimacy of the "bourgeois monarch" he served. He lacked the literary stature of Charles Dickens or Frances Trollope, whose caustic American "itineraries" skewered Yankee customs, or his cousin Chateaubriand, whose reveries for the majestic American landscape largely invented the Romantic tradition in France. Tocqueville's purpose was somewhat narrower. He had come to prepare an administrative report on American prisons; he paid his own way.

It was not his book on prisons that has mesmerized American audiences, however. Edward Banfield called Democracy in America"certainly the greatest book ever written by anyone about America"—to which Gordon Wood has added, "not only on America but also on democracy itself." George Wilson Pierson, the Depression-era historian responsible for a midcentury revival, praised Tocqueville's "essentially 'binocular'?" vision, and presented the man who possessed it, a royalist scion, as a prophet of the democratic era—a judgment Leo Damrosch, in his new piggyback picaresque through antebellum America, endorses. (Scrupulous Tocqueville biographer Hugh Brogan, too.) Democracy, which declared the triumph of self-government a "providential fact" but warned against the dangers of democracy unchecked, has been called "frighteningly prescient," and Tocqueville has been cited so often and so variously that the critic Caleb Crain has called him, cheekily, "the Nostradamus of democracy." Others have not been so cheeky. "He is the least insistent, but the most seductive, of the 19th-century prophetic writers," Mill scholar Alan Ryan has argued, championing Tocqueville over Goethe, Marx, Nietzsche, and Weber. The Frenchman's foresight is "uncanny," marvels Harvey Mansfield in an effusive forthcoming meditation—even disconcerting. "It is as if anyone who predicts so well must be a seer."

"Naif" is a better term. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville seems nothing more than an impressionable amanuensis—and perhaps a too-willing mouthpiece for the moneyed classes of New York and Boston, who, Damrosch shows in Tocqueville's Discovery of America, celebrated Tocqueville's unpropitious landfall with predictable provincial pomp. (That reception is recounted, too, in Peter Carey's ventriloquistic new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America.) Tocqueville took the word of one prominent New Yorker who told him, at the peak of the bank war and two years after the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, that no partisan rancor roiled the United States, and trusted another who assured him, within a year of the nullification crisis and Nat Turner's rebellion, that the American commercial spirit would never permit damage to the Union. Not a decade after the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine, he felt assured the United States had "no foreign interests to discuss." He imbibed the Federalist critique of Andrew Jackson during a brief conversation with a Boston Brahmin but declined to engage the president himself when he had the opportunity of a private audience. Tocqueville praised New England town meetings but never bothered to observe one. Nor any revival camp meetings. He didn't visit a single American college. It took the Frenchman just one Sunday in New York to conclude he had arrived in a religious nation, and when a friendly priest dismissed the many unorthodox Protestant sects emerging on the American frontier—in the greatest flowering of religious sentiment for a nation marked deeply and weirdly by religious expression—Tocqueville agreed that the country was headed for Catholicism.

Before setting down to write, Tocqueville rid himself of the facts he had managed to accumulate "like a traveler shaking off the dust from the road before appearing in decent company," his fin de siècle champion Émile Boutmy noted wryly. There is remarkably little discussion in Democracyof commerce, manufacturing, or banking, as Garry Wills has pointed out. There is nothing about canals, which had remade the American landscape in the decades just past, and nothing about railroads, which would do so again in the decades ahead. Tocqueville stayed a month in Boston but declined to visit the factories in Lowell. Or any other factories. He mentions steamboats, in his letters, only to demonstrate his own courage in boarding them. A putative prophet of the American century, Tocqueville was remarkably blind to the unfolding 19th-century revolution in American industry, and as a celebrated chronicler of the American character he missed perhaps the most striking feature of the nation in the age of Jackson—that it was changing, and very fast. "A new political science is needed for a totally new world," Tocqueville declared at the opening of his survey; but, as historian Walter McDougall has observed, "the society he tried to describe in Democracy in Americaceased to exist before the decade was out."

But if Tocqueville failed to adequately depict America, he may just have provided modern democracy with its first philosophical vocabulary. As both Damrosch and Mansfield point out, Tocqueville's true focus in Democracy was not the United States in the age of Jackson but France in the age of revolution. "I did not write one page of it without thinking about her and without having her, so to speak, before my eyes," he wrote. "I confess that in America I have seen more than America itself; I have looked there for an image of the essence of democracy, its inclinations, its personality, its prejudices, its passions; my wish has been to know it if only to realize at least what we have to fear from it."

There was, it seemed, plenty to fear. Between 1789 and 1852, the government of France was ruled over by eight distinct and contrary regimes and beset by spasms of revolutionary violence. For Tocqueville the threat was terrifyingly local: his great-grandfather had defended Louis XVI at trial and paid for it at the guillotine; his parents, too, were each sentenced to die, spared only by the execution of Robespierre, and his restorationist father brought young Alexis to Paris to celebrate, spitefully, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

The whole of Democracy "has been written under the pressure of a kind of religious terror exercised upon the soul of the author by the sight of this irresistible revolution," Tocqueville confessed in its introduction, "which is still advancing today amid the ruins it has caused." But the most remarkable feature of Democracyis not its spirit of panic but its measured optimism, and particularly its admiring depiction of the United States, hardly a generation removed from its own revolution, not as the vanguard of history or a preposterous political farce but as a model of stability and liberal restraint—already a moderate bulwark against the excesses of the new democratic age. Democracyis often called a work of American exceptionalism, but in its pursuit of lessons learned from America it reminds us that what goes by that name is often, more precisely, American universalism.

Tocqueville described himself as a "new kind of liberal," by which he meant to distinguish himself, chiefly, from intellectual forebears like Hobbes and Locke, for whom political theory was an elaborate exercise in abstract reasoning. He did not indulge in proto-anthropological conjecture, nor did he debate the merits of ideal governments. His theory was no theory; his theory was practice, "a political science that centers on the facts of human existence rather than on human nature," as Mansfield has written, and which emerges in his examination of the United States, an actual society, not in contemplation of an ideal one. The philosopher Sheldon Wolin, lamenting Tocqueville's failure to intervene more directly in the French insurrections that so disturbed him, has suggested that Tocqueville was "perhaps the last influential theorist who can be said to have truly cared about political life," but in every meaningful way his work marked the beginning of the opposite revolution—the study of politics as principally a practical science, and notably a contemporary one. His kind of liberal is our own, and his political sensibility—pragmatic and pluralistic, agnostic and ameliorative—anticipates the imperial liberalism of the long Victorian era to come.

But it is also a "strange liberalism," Roger Boesche has argued, because it retains, for all its admiration for the American model, a Romantic disenchantment with the total flatness of democratic society and an aristocratic disdain for what he described as the intellectual mediocrity of bourgeois culture. As much as Tocqueville owes to Enlightenment insights, his work belongs, as well, to the counter-Enlightenment strain of the liberal tradition—impressionistic and exhortative, idealistic in its use of types and fatalistic in its approach to history, sentimental both in its portrayal of a declining aristocracy and in its invocation of the turbulent United States as a manner of natural order. "Instead of the state of nature producing democracy, as in Hobbes and Locke," Mansfield writes, in Tocqueville "democracy produces something like the state of nature." That state-of-nature liberalism was consecrated for Americans by Frederick Jackson Turner in his frontier thesis, which substituted middle-distance history for national myth—and vice versa. But what was middle distance in Turner's Gilded Age is today truly alien; pioneering as it may be as practical philosophy, as history, Tocqueville's America is, and deserves to be, shrouded as myth.