Alexis de Tocqueville, it’s fair to say, is more often cited than read. His oeuvre is enormous; the commonly used quotations—typically taken from Democracy in America, with a few, perhaps, coming from The Old Regime and the Revolution—provide an easy shortcut. More rarely, one will encounter a comment extracted from his remarkable Recollections—in particular, describing his walks through Paris, when he was in Parliament, during the 1848 Revolution. But if one considers the whole of his work, available in a prestigious French Pléiade collection and running to thousands of pages, an infinitely complex personality reveals itself.
Tocqueville’s renown derives from two sources. The first, obviously, is the United States. Since the publication of Democracy in America, especially the first volume in 1834, Americans have been flattered that a great French writer, as well as a profound thinker, recognized the originality and power of their new republic. Better still, Tocqueville saw in the new republic the future of humanity—indeed, the destiny of civilized society. Based on this assessment, Tocqueville has always held a place at the summit of American higher education, a spiritual brother to Marquis de La Fayette, an earlier exemplar of France’s admiration of the new American state.
This view is understandable, if one reads Tocqueville without attending too closely to the foreboding that he feels about the development of American democracy. By democracy, he means progress in the equality of conditions. This boundless egalitarianism inspires in him fear for individual liberty, a worry that the passion for equality will crush freedom. Democracy in America is, in fact, a meditation on how the contradiction between equality and liberty might be overcome, or at least eased, by American society’s civil and religious institutions—schools of self-governance in Tocqueville’s famous interpretation.
In France, the second source of Tocqueville’s reputation, his influence came in stages. The first coincided with Democracy in America’s initial volume. The method that he employed in this work, mixing close observation with political and moral reflection, was sufficiently original to generate vast public attention. Tocqueville is often considered the founder of political science, based on his revolutionary approach in Democracy. The United States in the 1830s, too, was a popular topic among the French, who saw the new republic as a contrast or possible alternative to the monarchy, which, long after the French Revolution, remained a contested historical institution.
But Tocqueville’s precocious fame faded in France. Part of the reason was the declining popularity of the United States among the French. From the moment that President Andrew Jackson threatened war against France for its failure to repay debts from Napoleon’s destruction of American commercial ships, French public opinion turned against America. And the second volume of Democracy in America, published in 1840, was a more philosophical work, less vivid with anecdotes than the first volume. It failed to find an audience comparable with that of its predecessor.
Tocqueville would make a comeback in his own country more than a century later, in the 1960s, reflecting the political circumstances of the era. A new school of conservative historians decided to take aim at the systematically Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution then taught in the nation’s schools. François Furet, the iconic French historian of his time, led this movement, and he drew extensively on Tocqueville’s thought in advancing an influential new interpretation of the Revolution’s origins. He sought to show that the Revolution was moved essentially by the liberal idea of the Enlightenment, and not, as Marxists claimed, by the class struggle—a concept that, for Furet, was anachronistic for this period.
Along with Furet, the French classical liberal philosopher Raymond Aron also undertook Tocqueville’s rehabilitation, not only for his interpretation of the Revolution but also for his denunciation of the centralized state in France, which has prevailed uninterrupted since the reign of Louis XIII in the seventeenth century. In this way, Tocqueville became an obligatory reference point for classical liberals. It was only in the 1960s that Tocqueville was again to be found readily in bookstores and became a focus of political science study.
Between this perception of Tocqueville and the real Tocqueville, a gap exists, as one discovers in reading his work as a whole. Democracy in America is a youthful work, profound and innovative, to be sure—the product of a certain spirit and vision, even a prophetic gift. But it is just one moment in the intellectual and, especially, the political itinerary of Alexis de Tocqueville. For Tocqueville was soon to become an influential political figure in France, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, representing his region of the Cotentin, and briefly serving as a foreign affairs minister. Though he occupied this modest political position for only a limited time, his influence was significant. The Constitution of 1848, which founded the French Second Republic, is largely his work. It is Tocqueville who proposed that the president of the republic should be limited to one term. This idea may have been unwise: Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the first president of the Second Republic, would stage a coup d’état in 1851 to retain power, since he could not stand for reelection.
Reading Tocqueville, one is struck by how much he was a man of his time, of the dominant ideas and of the conservative France of his day. What really mattered to him? The United States was soon no longer his focus. His big concern was the glory of France—not the economic development. He tells King Louis Philippe, who had lived in exile in the United States and was quite attached to development, that “it is not by railroads that the glory of the country will be restored.” Tocqueville is indifferent to the economic revolution of his age, which will remake the world. He does not see this revolution, or the industrialization that propels it. He does not see the development of cities, or the emergence of a proletarian class of workers. He remains attached to an eternal rural France, the nation of small proprietors, cultivating their fields. Further, in Democracy in America, he is really interested only in the pioneers who clear the American land, and not the first industrialists, though these are arriving on the scene. Writing in the time of Andrew Jackson, he describes a Jeffersonian America already on its way out. To understand today’s United States in Tocqueville’s light requires some effort of the imagination.
The same two lasting traditions, which endure, are the ones generally cited as Tocqueville’s key insights about America: the religiosity that he attributes to the competition among churches; and the tendency of private initiatives to serve public purposes that we still see in the flourishing of American philanthropy. Ultimately, however, Tocqueville’s approach is based significantly on a settled vision of the world, a reflection of his milieu as a descendant of the old French nobility. The future that he wishes for resembles the past. True, he is not against the advance of equality—but nor does he wish for it. He takes equality, or democracy, as inevitable. It is in this sense that we may consider him a prophet, at a time when aristocracies still reigned in Europe.
Why are equality and democracy inevitable? Because of the industrial revolution and the class struggle, Marx will say. And what does Tocqueville think? Equality, for him, is the design of Providence, a choice made by God. Equality as the End of History? This concept was first conceived by the German philosopher Hegel, some years earlier than Tocqueville; for Hegel, though, the End of History was the nation-state, not democracy. To oppose democracy, believes Tocqueville, a Catholic, would be “to struggle against God himself.” Why does this equality manifest itself essentially in the United States, making it a laboratory of the future? God has designated this vast space, which Tocqueville imagines as empty, so that men—or Englishmen, according to his analysis—might forge a society called Democracy. This prospect of an egalitarian world frightens Tocqueville more than it gladdens him. But he cannot oppose this divinely willed destiny, however much he worries about what it implies.
Let us now try to analyze more precisely the presuppositions of the Tocquevillian worldview. The first, and most important, is that the world is divided into civilizations. I use the term “civilization,” as does Tocqueville, not “race.” Tocqueville is convinced of the unity of humanity. He will defend this view vigorously before his own secretary, Arthur de Gobineau, whose 1853 book, Essay on the Inequality of the Races of Humanity, would exert great influence in Nazi Germany. Tocqueville wrote to Gobineau in 1853: “Your theories seem to me probably wrong and very certainly pernicious; they will speak only to the Germans, who exalt the superiority of the Aryan race, and to American slaveholders.” Tocqueville was keenly perceptive on this point.
Still, he never defines exactly what he means by “civilization,” though one can discern his intention. My sense of it is that he sees a civilized man as someone who is attached to the land and cultivates it, transforming it by his labor and making it more valuable—the American pioneer, in other words. Tocqueville has the greatest respect for such an entrepreneur of the soil. Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman would agree: if I did not fear the anachronism, I would qualify Tocqueville, for all his lack of focus on industrial transformation, as a free marketeer.
Slavery was not a major focus in Democracy in America, doubtless because Tocqueville never visited the plantations of the American South. The true America, the one that interested him, was the America of the Puritans: the Northeast. As for the Virginians, to contrast them with the Puritans, whom he considered the founders of a new society, he calls them gold-seekers—not a compliment. The few blacks he met, in cities, were free. These were unfortunate and uprooted individuals, both in Tocqueville’s portrayal and in reality, but he does not pause much to ponder the source of their misfortune. He catches glimpses of slaves, especially in the famous passage where he describes a trip down the Ohio River. On one side, he sees Kentucky, where, it seems to him, white men work little because they own slaves; the land remains essentially uncultivated. The other side belongs to Ohio, where slavery is illegal; the state prospers because nature obliges the pioneers to toil and their employees to earn their wages. Tocqueville concludes that slavery has two victims: the white slaveholder; and the slave, his property—a superficial and anecdotal observation.
In the end, back in Europe, Tocqueville will affiliate with various associations in the struggle against slavery. And this time, he will do so for moral, not economic, reasons. Slavery, he declares in 1839 in a speech to the Academy of Moral Sciences, “is an abuse of power, in total disdain of all law, human and divine.”
Tocqueville may believe in the unity of humanity, but civilizations, he thinks, are ordered in a hierarchy of history and circumstances. At the pinnacle: Christian Europe, and especially the English, for whom he has the greatest admiration—for their mores, their spirit of enterprise and conquest, and their respect for individual liberties. (He married a British woman of modest origins.) Beyond his love for the British, he does not offer a worked-out classification of civilizations, but it appears in a fragmentary manner in his writing. For example, he does not situate all North America’s Indians at the same level; some tribes appear more civilized than others. Consider the Cherokee, who seem on the road to being civilized. They have adopted an alphabet that lets them read and write in their own language, he observes. They have taken up agriculture, too, Tocqueville points out—that important sign of civilization. Yet they still tend to abandon their properties in order to hunt, and thereby return to their ancient mores, which he deems barbarian. Witnessing the expulsion of the Cherokee to western Mississippi, he deplores (in his notebooks) their unfortunate situation but still supports their forced relocation to new territories, where they might finally become fully civilized. “To civilize a people,” Tocqueville says in Democracy in America, “they must have a place to settle, and this can never be the case unless they cultivate the land.”
We might find this insensitive. But this is how people thought at that time, and, again, Tocqueville is a man of his time. Another story illustrates his sense of civilizational hierarchy: he tells us of the Arabs he meets in Algeria, where he has traveled to gauge the progress—too slow, for his taste—of French colonization. The Arabs, he opines, are not civilized, but neither are they totally barbarian. The proof is that they build cities. Encountering the head of the Arab revolt in Algeria, Emir Abdelkader, he remarks in his notes: “This man is very intelligent. . . . The Arabs are quick learners—too quick, in fact, and might turn against France. Necessary to destroy them.”
In sum, for Tocqueville, one can infer—again, he never defines his terms clearly—that civilization brings together prosperity, religion, good government, the rule of law, the establishment of cities, and a prosperous agriculture. Above all, it must develop institutions that reconcile equality and liberty.
Tocqueville belongs to an era when people believed in progress and sought to articulate theories of progress. He is part of the same generation as the great French theorist of progress, Auguste Comte, and he lived within a few years of the generation of Darwin and Marx. Tocqueville does not doubt that the world is changing, inexorably moving toward the equality of condition, but also toward a possible precipice—that of the loss of freedoms to a despotic central state. History is thus open-ended; it does not obey necessary laws, and no happy ending is guaranteed.
Tocqueville is thus a pessimistic progressive, unlike Comte, Marx, or the leading French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He will consistently oppose the first French and British socialists. At that time, socialism was a new utopia, born in France and well represented among the political class, intellectuals, and journalists. What does Tocqueville have against socialism? Its utopianism. It is utopian because it is not natural. What is natural, according to Tocqueville, drawing inspiration from the economist Jean-Baptiste Say, are private property and private enterprise. Say coined the word “entrepreneur,” a neologism that became more popular in the United States than in France. Here again, we find Tocqueville’s idea of civilization: the cultivator transforming his plot of land as a metaphor for the good society.
Now we come to another unspoken—or barely spoken—premise of Tocqueville’s thought. He calls himself a liberal, which is incontestable for a man of his era. Today, though, he seems to us conservative, even reactionary. The scion of a great family of the French nobility decimated by the Revolution and by the guillotine, Tocqueville gives permanent expression, explicit or implicit, to a nostalgia for the Old Regime, the world of prerevolutionary France. Such an aristocratic and monarchical regime was perpetuated in the Great Britain that Tocqueville so admires. The reason that freedoms are better preserved in Britain than in France, and ongoing revolutions are avoided, he believed, is that the British aristocracy endured and serves as a check on the omnipotence of the state. France’s troubles, by contrast, result from the destruction of its aristocracy—first by the kings, beginning with Louis XIV, a monarch seeking absolute monarchy. This crushing of the nobility, and then of all intermediary bodies—what we would today call civil society—was furthered by the French Revolution and by Napoleon. This is the main thesis of Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, which shows that the revolutionary era’s upheavals were less ruptures in French history than the completion of a historical process of centralization of power, hostile to individual liberties.
The question that Tocqueville, a conservative liberal, grapples with is how to restore checks on the state, preventing it from eroding individual freedoms in the absence of the old aristocracy. His solution involves multiplying intermediate bodies and safeguarding the power of local communities. He envisions this as a means to strike a balance between indispensable central power and equally essential personal freedoms. A striking insight from his 1831 notebooks, written during his visit to the United States, encapsulates his entire philosophy: “A democratic government is such a dangerous machine that, even in America, we are obliged to take a great many precautions against the errors and the passions of democracy: two chambers, veto by governors, and judicial institutions.”
Let’s consider another premise of Tocqueville’s, an unspoken prejudice: the civilizing mission of the West. France’s conquest of Algeria—and this is rarely mentioned in discussions of Tocqueville—will prove the great affair of his life. He will consistently support the colonization of Algeria, in his writings and in speeches at the Academy and in the Chamber of Deputies, as well as in the office of foreign minister.
Colonization, he writes, brings civilization. And where colonization is concerned, any means are approved, including war, which, he writes in 1840, is “the remedy for the gradual softening of mores that threatens the French. . . . A nation must retain an attitude of pride and not give in to the weakness and egoism characteristic of the middle class.” These Tocqueville observations now sound archaic, though, in his day, such sentiments were accepted as natural. Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for the colonization of Algeria was inspired by his discovery of the American West. Algeria, he felt, was France’s far west; he considers it empty, just as he thought the United States frontier was empty. This was no truer in Algeria than in the United States, but most of the Algerians were nomads—and, since, for Tocqueville, the nomad is a barbarian, Algeria should be conquered to civilize it, even if this required the extermination of populations and the destruction of cities to make room for the French. In these liberated spaces, the French would demonstrate their creative genius, recovering the glory and virility that they risked losing under the influence of bourgeois thought.
India occupies a singular place in Tocqueville’s work. He dreamed of it often. After retiring from political life (because he had protested the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon, who became Napoleon III), Tocqueville moved to Cannes, to treat, he hoped, his tuberculosis, but without success. With his time free, he devoted himself to reading travel narratives about India, a country that perplexed him. It was a great civilization, but, as he wrote, it had ceased to progress. And it was a civilization organized according to totally different principles from those of the West. Indians cannot be defined as those living in India, for there was no Indian state and no Indian nation. Tocqueville was perceptive on this for his time, and what he said then remains partly true: India is a bundle of local collectivities, each with its organization, its temple, its hierarchy, and its castes. Some of these communities seem rather republican to him, administered by elected officials, generally five men called the Panchayat, a type of organization that one still finds in the northeast of India. Tocqueville was tempted to go there. He would have liked to have written a counterpart to Democracy in America, which would have been Democracy—or, rather, its absence—in India.
What interests Tocqueville even more in India is how the English took it over. He notes with surprise that, with barely 50,000 men, Britain can control a population then estimated at 100 million inhabitants. This military conquest, moreover, was accomplished to the detriment of the French, following French defeats at the end of the eighteenth century. We tend to forget that, when the young Napoleon Bonaparte went to Egypt in 1799, his ultimate destination was India, which he wanted to reconquer. Just as Tocqueville wrote several hundred pages about how to vanquish Algeria, he left us 200 pages of detailed notes on how to take India back from the English. Since the British fleet was vastly superior to France’s, reconquering India by sea was impossible. On the other hand, since the French infantry was far superior to the British, it would suffice, Tocqueville wrote, to follow Alexander the Great’s route, through Afghanistan, and to retake India from the north—thus restoring the glory of the French empire.
This desire for a colonial empire runs throughout Tocqueville’s work. French colonization began with the subjugation of Algeria in 1830 and would be pursued throughout the nineteenth century, but with a different motive from that of the Spanish, Portuguese, or Dutch. For the Spanish, colonization was about Christianizing the world. For the Portuguese and the Dutch, the point was to seek wealth, just as it was for the British. Tocqueville is one of the pioneers of the concept of the civilizing mission, which became the leitmotif of French imperialism under the Third Republic (1871–1940). This was an illusion, but it has lasted to the present day, insofar as the French have never really revised their imperial history: they still teach colonialism in the schools in a somewhat positive way, without asking too many questions about the destruction it left in its path.
I emphasize this only to note how important it is not to commit the sin of presentism, whether concerning Tocqueville or others. To reread Tocqueville solely from a contemporary point of view is a sure way to misunderstand the past, as well as the present. I cite the story of Tocqueville’s India to highlight how he often went to places other than America, at least in spirit—and these places were often not democracies.
Let us not, however, push the paradox too far. Tocqueville’s anxiety in the face of the rise of equality, the danger of what we now call illiberal democracy, frames his whole life and his work. The current advance of illiberal democracies—Turkey, Hungary, and India, to take three—would suffice to make Tocqueville relevant to our era. Yet Tocqueville also fails to define the term “freedom,” though it is always on his lips. Does he mean political liberty? Or economic liberty? Both? We cannot know for certain. He seems quite attached to freedom of expression, especially to freedom of the press. He also praises the freedom to elect one’s representative, while neglecting to mention that 90 percent of the population had no right to vote in his day because of property requirements and other restrictions. He does not mention the question of women’s right to vote or to exercise political power. Nor does Tocqueville bring up religious freedom, doubtless because, in the France of his day, the question hardly arose; in Tocqueville’s eyes, France is obviously Catholic. The world to which he belongs, the world from which he came, is still rural, Catholic, and patriarchal.
Tocqueville may be from an earlier time, but he is also of our time; this is why we still read him. And unlike Marx or Comte, he is a great writer. As proof, consider the celebrated conclusion of the second volume of Democracy in America: “Nations in our day can do nothing to prevent conditions in their midst from being equal. But it is up to them to decide whether the equality of conditions leads to servitude or to freedom, to enlightenment or to barbarism, to prosperity or to misery.” Such is the synthesis of his work, as he himself expressed it, and as may be considered eternally true.
Was he a prophet? He is often considered one, based on what scholars call the Tocqueville hypothesis. The French Revolution, he observed, took place not when the monarchy was most repressive but when it became more tolerant and open to reforms. Consequently, Tocqueville deduces that autocracies tend to crumble when they grow less authoritarian. This paradox applies to the French Revolution. Is it an eternal rule? It looked so during the waning days of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev initiated perestroika in what would be a failed transition from despotism to socialism with a human face; the public revolt intensified and collapsed the system. Communist Chinese and Arab despots have notably rejected the perestroika trap; they increased repression when faced with any popular attempt to democratize their regimes. Maybe Xi Jinping or Arab leaders take the Tocqueville hypothesis seriously and refuse to run the risk of checking its authenticity in the real world. As for Tocqueville’s famous prediction about the future favoring the United States and Russia, mentioned often in the 1960s, it still applies to the U.S. today, but not to Russia—we’re still living in an American-dominated era. But Tocqueville remained ignorant of China, which is now America’s great twenty-first-century rival. Prophecy is a risky endeavor.
It is often claimed that Tocqueville was the greatest historian of his time, in part because of the praise of the legal theorist and philosopher Carl Schmitt. Schmitt is a controversial thinker, due to his Nazi ties, but he remains respected across the political spectrum. In his notable essay on Tocqueville, written while he was detained by the U.S. military police in 1945, Schmitt stated that history may be written by the victors—but only the losers truly understand it. He claimed that Tocqueville, a former aristocrat, devout Catholic, free marketeer, and French nationalist, who witnessed the decline of his country, was a quintessential “loser.” Being on the losing side of history made Tocqueville exceptionally perceptive. It’s a strange epitaph, coming from another historical loser, but it has a grain of truth.
Some readers may find my analysis controversial. It certainly contradicts some common perceptions of Tocqueville. But the greatest homage to an intellectual, I believe, is to dispute his ideas as if he were still with us. Tocqueville is with us.
Top Photo: A statue of de Tocqueville in the Normandy General Council courtyard, commune of Saint-Lô, France, 2005 (Photo by MYCHELE DANIAU/AFP via Getty Images)