A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE

In my last post, which seems like a year ago, I wrote about the populist strands I see pervading the current Illinois state gubernatorial race and how they reminded me of a famous political contest from nearly two centuries ago, the presidential election of 1828. In that election, the supporters of General Andrew Jackson championed their candidate as a man of the people, in contrast to his supposedly elitist rival, incumbent John Quincy Adams.

By 1828 Jackson was one of the wealthiest men in America (the fruit of savvy land speculation and effective political networking), but you would never know that by listening to the claims of his supporters. To “Jacksonians” (who would soon begin to use the label Democrat), Jackson was a man of the people whose humble roots, limited education, and minimal political experience all were strong arguments in his favor. Adams, in contrast, suffered from the liabilities of a prominent family name, a Harvard degree, and a lifetime of political service. As Jackson’s campaign managers put it, the contest came down to a choice between “Adams, who can write,” and “Jackson, who can fight.” The people chose the fighter in a landslide.

I concluded the post by promising to discuss the implications of that choice, and now I am back to make good on that pledge. To be honest, I am still working through my own thinking on the question, and I don’t pretend to have any profound pronouncements to make. Instead, I would rather direct you to an assessment of American politics in the age of Andrew Jackson that is still one of the most insightful commentaries on the relationship of liberty, equality, and religion that I know of. The work I have in mind is Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Democracy in America is one of those books that is cited much more than read. We’ve almost all heard of it. It rates a paragraph or two in most U. S. history textbooks, and A.P. instructors may occasionally assign a tiny portion of it. But apart from political science majors and American government teachers, it is a rare American who knows much of anything about this important work. We’re the poorer because of it.

I like to frame the importance of history in terms of metaphors. History is a form of memory and is critical to our sense of who we are. It also functions as a mirror, enabling us to see ourselves with new eyes and greater clarity. It is  certainly a story as well, a grand narrative in which we situate our lives, defining where we have come from, what we believe in, and where (we hope) we are headed. But history also is potentially a rich, even life-changing conversation about perennial human questions—“a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”

So as a historian, one of the things I want to be doing regularly is entering into conversation with the best that has been thought and said in the past. And as a history teacher, one of the things I need to be doing regularly is introducing my students to the conversation partners that they most need to meet. Alexis de Tocqueville is one of those conversation partners. He has much to say to us, if we are willing to listen.

“Time converts more people than reason,” Thomas Paine observed at the beginning of Common Sense. What he meant was that most of us tend to accept as “natural” the way that the world is when we come into it. When Paine sounded the call for independence in 1776, he was writing to Americans who had lived their entire lives under monarchy. They accepted that form of government, Paine was convinced, less because of its merits than because it was all that they had ever known.

When we see any human institution or custom as natural or inevitable, it’s really hard for us to think about it deeply. Why agonize over something that can’t be any other way than it is? Part of what Paine did in Common Sense was to take his readers back to the origins of the English monarchy in an effort to help them see it—really see it—so they might think critically about it.

This is potentially one of history’s greatest benefits. It allows us to go back in time to a moment when institutions and customs that we now take for granted were new and strange and even controversial, when the matter wasn’t settled, when the outcome wasn’t inevitable. And by listening in on the conversation from that time, what we once saw as utterly familiar can begin to seem strange to us, and this, in turn, can both inspire and enable us to think about it. This is true, as Paine recognized, because we give what is familiar the benefit of the doubt; the strange we feel forced to explain.

This is part of why C. S. Lewis so strongly advocated the reading of old books. In an assertion that first seems counter-intuitive, Lewis argued that old books have the potential to help us understand the present better than works from our own day. On the whole, contemporary works reinforce our blind spots rather than exposing them, and the truths that they teach us are often “truths which we half knew already.” By comparison, old books have a greater capacity to challenge and change us. Where they are wrong, they are unlikely to harm us. Where we are blind, however, they may open our eyes.

Revisiting a classic work like Democracy in America is one way “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” in Lewis’s memorable phrase. Tocqueville was writing at a time when democracy was still a novel experiment in the world. Its future was uncertain. Its impact was unclear. And although he was writing about democracy in a very specific historical context (he arrived in the United States at the midpoint of Andrew Jackson’s first term as president), his investigation was driven by questions as relevant today as they were in the 1830s: How do you reconcile the rights of individuals with the needs of society? How do you maximize individual freedom while promoting stability and order? How do you simultaneously advance liberty and ensure justice, and what role does religious belief play in that delicate balancing act?

I can’t recommend Democracy in America highly enough.   In my next two posts I plan to share some of my favorite passages from the book, focusing on what Tocqueville had to say about (1) the effects of democratic culture on society and politics and (2) the role of religion as a bulwark against tyranny.  In the meantime, you might consider ordering a copy, if you don’t have one lying around, and spending some time with it.  The full text can be rather daunting–most editions come in at somewhere around 800 pages–but there are several good abridged editions also available.  (The edition featured in the Bedford Books series of St. Martin’s Press is my favorite of this type.  It features an excellent brief introduction by distinguished historian Michael Kammen, followed by a lean sampling of the meatiest chapters adding up to about a fifth of the original.  You can read about the edition here.)

Democracy in America

If you do decide to read the book for yourself, may I share a word of exhortation and a little bit of context before you get started?  First the exhortation: as much as possible, take seriously the idea of entering into a conversation with the author.  Hospitality is a historical as well as a Christian virtue.  As you would with any other guest that you invite into your home, purpose to treat Tocqueville considerately.   Invite him to speak.  Listen to him respectfully.  Don’t respond defensively, indeed, don’t respond at all until you have thought carefully about what he has to say.

Now for the context.  Anytime you pick up a historical document, it is a good idea to find out all that you can about the author, the author’s audience, and the author’s purpose for writing.  Here are a few details that are helpful to know:

Alexis de Tocqueville was the third son of an aristocratic French family that traced its noble lineage at least as far  back as the Norman conquest of England in 1066.  In 1831, at the age of twenty-six, Tocqueville was commissioned by the French government, in tandem with another young aristocratic Frenchman, Gustave de Beaumont, to travel to the United States to investigate and report on the American penitentiary system.  Tocqueville and Beaumont arrived in the U. S. in May of 1831, and for the next nine months they explored the country, traveling by stagecoach, steamboat, and on horseback from the urban northeast to the edge of the western frontier and back again.  Upon returning to France, they filed their report on penitentiaries and then Tocqueville began to pen a much broader set of reflections on American politics, American institutions, American culture, and the American people.  The first volume of Democracy in America was published in 1835, and volume II followed five years later.  The first American translation of volume I appeared in 1838.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville’s audience was always first and foremost his fellow countrymen.  He wrote about America but not for America, at least not primarily.  Indeed, understanding the French context is crucial to understanding the book.  Writing to the English translator of his work,  Tocqueville explained,

I came into the world at the end of a long revolution, which after having destroyed the former state of things had created nothing lasting in his place.  Aristocracy was already dead when I began to live, and democracy was not yet in existence.

As the French Revolution of 1789 gave way to the Great Terror of 1793, Tocqueville’s grandfather went to the guillotine and his parents, then young adults, went to the dungeon and barely escaped with their lives.  By the time that Tocqueville was born a dozen years later, Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor of France.  The implications of these events were clear: proclaiming  liberty was not the same thing as preserving it, and the establishment of political equality guaranteed neither liberty nor justice.  These lessons haunted Tocqueville his whole life long, and Democracy in America cannot be understood apart from them.

You should know that though Tocqueville was an aristocrat in temperament and lineage, he both foresaw and accepted that democracy represented the wave of the future.  He hoped to refine the trend, not resist it.  If he was critical of what he saw in America–and he often was–he was on the whole a sympathetic critic.  He was fascinated with the United States because he believed it to be the freest nation in the world, and he always hoped that his native France could learn from the American example.

Finally, we should respect just how seriously Tocqueville approached his subject.  The stakes were almost incalculably high, he believed.  “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst,” Tocqueville wrote in the very last paragraph of volume II.  “But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”

2 responses to “A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE

  1. Pingback: “WHAT SORT OF DESPOTISM DEMOCRATIC NATIONS HAVE TO FEAR” | Faith and History

  2. Pingback: Tracy McKenzie Introduces Us To Alexis de Tocqueville | To Breathe Your Free Air

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