The Man who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville by Olivier Zunz - review by Alan Ryan

Alan Ryan

Oui, the People

The Man who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville


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Olivier Zunz has written what must surely be the definitive account of the public life of Alexis de Tocqueville. It was ‘public’ in the sense not only of his career as a not entirely successful member of the Chamber of Deputies and, briefly, foreign minister under Louis Napoléon, but also of his role as an author eager to explain to his fellow countrymen what their political future might hold. The story is told with an attention to detail that will leave many readers struggling to keep up, but which lends the narrative great solidity and persuasiveness.

Tocqueville was a strikingly improbable figure. He was an aristocrat of the most elevated kind who could barely bring himself to shake hands with the bourgeois members of the Chamber of Deputies. He nonetheless took it as read that the days of aristocratic rule and privilege were over and devoted himself to trying to teach the French how to create a bourgeois democracy that would avoid the disasters of lurching from revolution to autocracy, from Robespierre to Napoleon. He was equally conscious of being French, yet he married a middle-class Englishwoman, Mary Mottley, several years his senior, who was accepted only with great reluctance by his family.

Perhaps the greatest improbability was that he existed at all. He was born in 1805, but eleven years previously much of his extended family had been wiped out in the Terror. His parents were awaiting the guillotine on the day Robespierre fell from power. The youngest son of Hervé and Louise-Madeleine, Tocqueville was a small child with a shaky constitution. He was brought up under the care of a tutor, the Abbé Lesueur, known affectionately as Bébé, who was an ardent royalist. Tocqueville’s father was a prefect in various places under Louis XVIII, finally at Versailles, and Tocqueville grew up in an atmosphere of unquestioning loyalty to the restored Bourbon monarchy. This was not the same thing as thinking that Bourbon governments were intelligently or prudently run.

After a desultory career at law school, Tocqueville joined the public administration as an unpaid juge d’instruction, a role with no exact equivalent in the English legal system. He found the work rather dull and was saved from complete boredom by the company of Gustave de Beaumont, a fellow lawyer and in due course his travelling companion in the United States. The question of what to do in the long run was settled by political upheaval. In 1830, the pendulum swung once more and Charles X was driven from office, to be replaced by Louis Philippe, the bourgeois monarch.

This posed a dilemma for Tocqueville and Beaumont. Would they take the oath of allegiance to Louis Philippe that was required of civil servants, or would they resign? In the end they signed up, but as unhappily as possible. Escape came in an unlikely shape. Both had been interested in prison reform and both thought badly of the French penal system, which neither punished effectively nor did anything to reform prison inmates. They proposed to their superiors that they should take an eighteen-month leave of absence to study the American penal system. They sweetened the pill by agreeing to go at their own expense. In the event, they were recalled after a mere nine months, but they did what they had agreed to do, and the first result of the journey that ultimately produced Democracy in America was ‘On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France’.

The title of this biography is more than a little at odds with Zunz’s account of Tocqueville’s American journey, which might be called ‘the man who hadn’t a clue about America’. Tocqueville had read some of the travel literature on the United States, but most of his expectations were derived from the lectures of François Guizot on the rise of the English middle class. The United States was the country where the middle class was triumphant. Zunz points out that most of the people Tocqueville met in the United States were in fact members of the upper class from New England and New York. ‘Ordinary’ Americans were few and far between, and not present at the endless round of dinner parties to which Tocqueville and Beaumont were subjected.

Zunz’s account of the journey is nonetheless engaging. The pair’s adventures on a variety of steamboats and their near-fatal shipwreck, not to mention Tocqueville’s desperate illness en route to New Orleans, are the stuff of a Boy’s Own story. And there were touching incidents, too. One came during their two-week excursion to the frontier, where they were astonished to hear a bois brûlé – a half-Native-American, half-French-Canadian – singing a medieval French tune. Regret for the French North America that might have been was never far from Tocqueville’s mind. Another incident was altogether less happy. In Arkansas, they encountered a band of Choctaws who were being forcibly removed to Oklahoma on the so-called ‘trail of tears’. They were appalled.

Summoned back to France several months earlier than they had anticipated, Tocqueville and Beaumont saw little of the Southern states and never visited a plantation. They also saw very little of Congress. It was enough to reinforce Tocqueville’s prejudices against the rougher sort of American politician. The House of Representatives was loud, ignorant and uncouth, but the Senate contained the assembled wisdom of the nation. For all his reputation as the great theorist of democracy, Tocqueville was never an enthusiast for universal suffrage or the kind of electoral politics that went with it.

Once home, they decided they could not bear their former jobs and resigned. The first priority was to write the promised account of American prisons. It duly appeared early in 1833, Tocqueville being at this point still only twenty-eight years old. It was more than respectfully received, securing for the authors the Montyon Prize of the French Academy, but it was not the path to fame that Tocqueville wanted. This was reached when the first volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, though the ground had been prepared through his assiduous attendance at the most influential salons in Paris. Oddly, no American publisher was interested until a pirated edition came out in 1838. Even then, Americans remained lukewarm to it, not much liking Tocqueville’s warnings against the tyranny of the majority. The second volume appeared in 1840 and was much less successful, probably because it was more abstract and readers were puzzled by what Tocqueville meant by the ‘new political science’ he declared necessary for studying anything as unprecedented as a fully functioning democracy.

But Tocqueville had by now embarked on his second career as a politician both in parliament and in the press. In 1837, he failed to be elected for his home district in Normandy, but he remedied this in 1839 and was re-elected throughout the following decade. His physical place in the (raked, semicircular) Chamber of Deputies was an apt reflection of his political position: high up and slightly left of centre. He was not gifted as an orator or blessed with the ingratiating arts necessary to climb the greasy pole. But he was not without influence. Surprisingly for a liberal, he was a strenuous advocate of the conquest and colonisation of Algeria; less surprisingly, he was an equally strenuous opponent of slavery.

His career reached a sort of peak after the 1848 revolution. Democrat though he notionally was, he was fiercely anti-socialist and defended the repressive measures taken during and after the so-called June Days. His position was defensible – order was the precondition of civil liberty – but the ferocity of his hostility to the leaders of the revolution was a good deal less so. His reward was to be made foreign minister, a post he served in from June to October 1849. But revolution was succeeded not by an orderly constitutional monarchy, as Tocqueville had hoped, but by the coup of December 1851 that brought Louis Napoléon to power. Tocqueville retired to the country and settled down to write what John Stuart Mill aptly described as the third of his masterpieces, The Ancien Régime and Revolution. He was by this time seriously ill with tuberculosis, so only the first of two projected volumes was completed and published in 1856. He died in Cannes in 1859 and is buried in Normandy.

So was Tocqueville the man who understood democracy? Not exactly. What he understood by the irresistible rise of democracy was not the entrenchment of such principles as one person, one vote or the growth of political parties on the American pattern. It was, as he insisted in the second volume of Democracy in America, a matter of what he called les moeurs, a hard-to-translate expression, equivalent to the Latin mores, embracing both private morality and social expectations. What had gone forever was an unquestioned acceptance of an inherited social hierarchy. What frightened Tocqueville was the prospect that the egalitarian pressures of this new world would result in a novel form of despotism, what critics call ‘soft despotism’, a state of affairs in which everyone retreats into their private spheres and a centralising government manages everything behind their backs. What he would have made of the very unsoft despotism of Hitler and Stalin, both backed by mass support, is impossible to say.

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