Democracy in France: The Intellectual Context of Tocqueville’s Masterwork

As the revolutionary age transformed Europe and the New World, among the few prominent instances of global stability, or so it has frequently been asserted, was the special relationship between ...

As the revolutionary age transformed Europe and the New World, among the few prominent instances of global stability, or so it has frequently been asserted, was the special relationship between France and America. The French, after all, were instrumental to the result of the American war for independence;1sk the travelled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live? Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations and the earliest & sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France.” ] perhaps the most symbolically evocative and totemic emblem of our land—the Statue of Liberty—is a gift from the nation of France; and a key piece of our national self-understanding hinges on a document penned by a Frenchman. Democracy in America, while not unbridled praise, has long been regarded by Americans as a prescient and penetrating account of our nation, one that suggests how we might serve as a model for the march of democracy across the world.

But then consider the following portrait of America and its people, from Dr. Laurent Cerisé, writing in L’Européen in 1835, just after the first volume of Tocqueville’s masterpiece was published:

This hideous collection of aristocratic bourgeois and bourgeois aristocrats, who so loudly proclaimed Christian liberty and rebelled against the mother country so as to avoid paying a few cents more for a pound of tea; this band of slave traders who speak of fraternity and equality yet engage in a shameful traffic in human flesh; this nation of ignorant shopkeepers and narrow-minded workers, who cannot boast of a single work of art across the vast extent of their continent … (quoted in Jaume)

Nearly two centuries later, and it still stings a bit. Is the American remembrance of an early love affair with France mere fantasy? Perhaps in our nearly singular attention to Tocqueville, we have missed a broader sense of how America was understood during the revolutionary age. Or could it be that we’ve read Tocqueville through the rosy lens of American optimism, and that we’ve misread one of the foundational texts used to construct our sense of nation?

Alexis de Tocqueville’s story is well rehearsed, and yet the details are worth revisiting. In 1831 France sent two aristocrats—curiously persistent social positions 40 years after chants of “égalité” and legions of severed heads—to study America’s innovative prison system. One came from a noble family in the Loire Valley; eloquent and charming, at the young age of 24 he was elevated to the position of King’s Prosecutor at Versailles. I write “elevated,” because in early 19th-century France positions were rarely earned. This is not to say that office holders were lazy or untalented. Merely that they tended to be limited to the children of other office holders, and these were primarily noblemen. Nor does this mean that they were all conservative. Our young prosecutor was a passionate social reformer, admiring the liberality of America’s prison system and condemning both the treatment of slaves and the separation of the races. America held great promise, in his estimation, but had some way to go before it could become a moral society.

Could it be that we’ve read Tocqueville through the rosy lens of American optimism, and that we’ve misread one of the foundational texts used to construct our sense of nation?

Beneath this charming man, Gustave de Beaumont, worked another young aristocrat, the more temperamental Alexis de Tocqueville. His parents, who made him into a rather spoiled child, only avoided the guillotine with the overthrow of the revolutionary Robespierre. The 21-year-old’s brilliance was almost immediately recognized by his supervisor. But Beaumont’s admiration stemmed not from any belief that Tocqueville was likely to carry the great torch of democracy by leading the people. “He had no great success with the crowd,” Beaumont wrote. This was not such a problem, he continued, because Tocqueville “never failed with the elite … no one doubted that a brilliant future was his, and more than one president of assize [the King’s court of justice] prophesied a high destiny for him.”2 After four years of working as lawyers in the royal court together, the pair embarked on the American adventure that would allow Tocqueville to fulfill what so many saw as his great promise.

The presidents of assize did not imagine that Tocqueville would become another Montesquieu—lauded in Britain and Americas as the great liberal thinker of France—but rather that he would take the more conservative, aristocratic career path of his great-grandfather, Chretien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes. Less well known today, Malesherbes was also a lawyer, served as secretary of state under Louis XVI, and helped defend the King during his trial at the 1792 Convention. For his troubles, Malesherbes was forced to watch his daughters’ and granddaughter’s execution; shortly after, he too was beheaded.

It should be surprising, then, that after writing up an account of his travels across America, Tocqueville would be wreathed the great champion of democracy and equality. Of the two, Beaumont was the greater believer in the broad idea of equality. It was Beaumont, the passionate reformer, who wrote a novel, Marie, ou L’Esclavage aux États-Unis (Marie; or, Slavery in the United States), condemning the inhumanity of American slavery. Tocqueville worried about the racial dynamics of the United States yet did so largely through the lens of the intractable political problem that slavery and treatment of the natives was creating. Were we to look to Tocqueville’s essays on Algeria, we would see a far different man, one who argued for the importance of the separation of the races under imperialism and the importance of maximizing colonial France’s extractive capacity, without much regard to the human cost.3

In France I have often heard people I respect, but do not approve, deplore [the army] burning harvests, emptying granaries and seizing unarmed men, women and children. As I see it, these are unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept…. I believe the laws of war entitle us to ravage the country and that we must do this, either by destroying crops at harvest time, or all the time by making rapid incursions, known as raids, the aim of which is to carry off men and flocks.4

This is to say that Tocqueville was a complicated figure caught between two worlds—the old regime of aristocracy that defined his family and nation’s honor and greatness, and the future of Western democracy. His work manifests this struggle: while Tocqueville held that democracy was Europe’s destiny, he did not view democracy as unadulterated progress away from a primitive dark past.

His main concern about democracy is well known: within its potential equality, tyranny could still emerge.5; all subsequent quotations of Democracy in America are from this edition). But the text continues for many hundreds of pages, and as James T. Schleifer has noted, “democracy” has at least 11 different meanings in Tocqueville (The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, [University of North Carolina Press, 1980]). This has led scholars like Jon Elster to describe Tocqueville’s thought as “incorrigibly incoherent” (See Jaume [p. 1], who refers us to Elster’s Political Psychology [Cambridge University Press, 1993]). But one might also look to Elster’s more recent and far more sympathetic reading in Alexis de Tocqueville: The First Social Scientist (Cambridge University Press, 2009). I won’t enter this morass by suggesting yet another definition of democracy in Tocqueville. But it is important to note that, for his purposes, Lucien Jaume argues that there are three elements to Tocqueville’s conceptualization of democracy: local power, religion of the Public, and expectation of “material pleasures” (p. 82); importantly, equality has no place in this definition. ] Tocqueville argued that democracy, equality, and liberty were not equivalent concepts. Today it is rather common to think that democracy makes us free; in Tocqueville’s era few would have made such an analytic slippage. The best known of Tocqueville’s concerns is the tyranny of the majority, but in fact Tocqueville proffered many arguments about the possibility of despotism within democracy. His vision of the potential coexistence of democracy and tyranny was nightmarish.

When a man or a party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? It is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the police? They are nothing but the majority under arms. A jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to pronounce judgments … So, however iniquitous or unreasonable the measure which hurts you, you must submit. (italics added)

Tocqueville’s worry was that America’s exceptionalism—its lack of aristocracy—represented not just its great promise but also the means for the loss of liberty. The advantage of the ancien régime was that people had a sense of place—you knew where you stood—and this was liberating. At the core of such a view is the idea that freedom comes not from the absence but from the presence of constraints. It seems an easy enough argument for an aristocrat to make. But conceptually there is something to the idea that obligation is a cornerstone of freedom. Our relationships (with friends, families, loved ones, within status or occupational groups) are a patterned set of constraints that provide the capacity to develop a self that could not exist outside such relationships. Under such logic, freedom means self-realization, and such self-realization is only possible through the bonds of belonging. Under the equality of democracy, Tocqueville saw not the security of belonging but the burdens of endless striving. Americans, having no metric by which to judge the differences between themselves and others, began to make the dollar the currency of distinction and self-definition. The result was not freedom but a new kind of tyranny: one fails to know oneself, defines oneself by some standard that is not part of one’s self or position, and might be driven to madness in the attempt to find one’s place. Worse still, though it might appear as if social barriers dissolve under democracy, this is mostly an illusion. The benefits of hierarchies in structuring life disappear as distinctions are made invisible.

The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires. Not only are they themselves powerless, but they are met at every step by immense obstacles, which they did not at first perceive. They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed shape rather than place. (italics added)

While many Americans today read their exceptionalism as a great compliment to their character, the man who did so much to develop the concept worried that it might well result in equality without freedom.

In Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty, intellectual historian Lucien Jaume places this classic story of Tocqueville in a new light. Though Jaume provides a masterful account of Democracy in America, his reading does not suggest that we have gotten Tocqueville terribly wrong. Instead, he locates Tocqueville within a particular 19th-century intellectual and cultural context. Jaume argues that Democracy in America was written less as an account of America than as a discussion with various French intellectual and political traditions of the day. The result is something curious—a reading of Democracy in America from which America is largely absent, both in terms of Tocqueville’s more ethnographic observations and, with rare exceptions, as the source of any native intellectual tradition. Passage after passage in Tocqueville is placed in the context of Gallic debates with which few beyond the most specialized readers will have anything but cursory familiarity.

This narrow focus is unlikely to inspire many readers to pick up Jaume’s book, which is a shame. For Jaume has given us a brilliant reading of one of the most important books about America: one that is erudite, compelling, and frustrating. The culmination of Jaume’s career, it provides much more than a deeper understanding of the arguments among French intellectuals in the 1830s and ’40s (though such material is terribly entertaining, particularly the vehement denunciations of Democracy in America and the United States more broadly). Jaume shows how the question of America’s future was part of a vigorous debate among French intellectuals over the meaning of liberty, aristocracy, democracy, and the role of the state in social life. And though Jaume argues against such a reading, these are debates we can still learn from today.

Jaume shows how the question of America’s future was part of a vigorous debate among French intellectuals over the meaning of liberty, aristocracy, democracy, and the role of the state in social life.

Many of us take for granted that through Tocqueville’s account of America, Europe saw it’s future. But to most Europeans the nation was a backwater—a land populated by savages, both native and white. Its local government and civic associations were marveled at by Tocqueville, but many of his contemporaries saw in these not so much the progress of politics as the lack of the kind of governmental institutions that were a mark of modern humanity. French Socialist thinkers (heirs to Saint-Simon) leveled a series of arguments against both Tocqueville and the American ideals of local government and a liberal economy. Great fortunes might be built in America—John Jacob Astor may have been the wealthiest man in the world in the 1830s—but there was little culture to speak of in this new land. French dinner guests of Mr. Astor marveled that he ate his peas with a knife. Such horrors were augmented by the realization that the good fortune of some was hardly shared: the wages of the average American stagnated well through the first several decades of the republic; per capita income in 1835, when the first volume of Democracy in America appeared, was roughly what it had been before the revolution. Sadly, such material conditions are of little interest to Jaume, as is any thinking from beyond the boundaries of Tocqueville’s natal nation. And though the world of the 19th century was increasingly defined by the global connections of capital and the transnational passage of ideas, Jaume limits his (intellectual) history to France.

Yet when Dr. Cerisé refers to “This hideous collection of aristocratic bourgeois and bourgeois aristocrats … this nation of ignorant shopkeepers …” what he is playfully turning on Americans is Adam Smith’s imagery in Wealth of Nations: “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers.” Yet Jaume does not raise this point. Such moments provide a problematic backdrop for him, for they show how French thinkers were clearly in dialogue with a wide range of intellectuals (need we remind ourselves that many socialist movements were international?). We might do well to remember that some of the most famous ideas in Tocqueville are neither Tocqueville’s nor French. Take “tyranny of the majority”: the phrase was first introduced to Americans (and the world) by the second US president, John Adams, and popularized by the Irish Briton Edmund Burke. Given how overstuffed with intellectual context Jaume’s volume is, it may well be too much to ask that it make that context global in scope. But Jaume is working within a tradition that seeks to reread Tocqueville and, by extension, our understanding of the revolutionary movements of the long 19th century—and those were more global than local.

We might do well to remember that some of the most famous ideas in Tocqueville are neither Tocqueville’s nor French.

Readers of Democracy in America often take away a lesson that we might (erroneously) call “the Tocqueville thesis.” This is the notion that America’s foundational traits were positively consequential for its development. The thesis fits more broadly within what Eric Jones has called “the European miracle.” Jones’s argument has many august antecedents, such as the work, better known, of Max Weber. The core idea informing such scholarship is that there was something particular about the West that allowed it to develop in ways that other places could not. Also embedded in this view is the theory that certain human communities progressed thanks to special aspects of their history, culture, ideas, or institutions; those that fell behind were marked by more primitive cultural, ideational, or institutional arrangements. Historians with a more global view have challenged this vision. The exceptionalism narrative depends on our lack of knowledge or recognition of the broader world—for instance, the massive importance of China in the 18th century. And being based in such ignorance, it should not surprise us that this vision does not fit the facts. In 1492 Columbus was desperate to reach China, not to colonize it but to capitalize upon its wealth through trade. Over a century later, Henry Hudson lost his life in pursuit of the same end: to trade with China. Three hundred years after Columbus, John Jacob Astor felt the safe bet on how he could build his fortune was with profits from the China trade. If European development was so advanced, why were centuries spent desperately trying to generate wealth from China?

The answer is simple enough: for millennia, China was the most powerful economy on earth. And if traders wanted money, they knew to seek it just off China’s shores (that is, in Macau, and Macau alone, until the Canton System, introduced in 1757, also allowed Western merchants into the port city now known as Guangzhou). As Kenneth Pomeranz has argued in his magisterial book The Great Divergence, economic differences between China and Europe were not that great before 1750—in fact the advantage was China’s. Charles Mann augments such insights in his more popular history of the post-Columbian moment,

China was then the earth’s wealthiest, most powerful nation. By virtually any measure—per capita income; military strength; average lifespan; agricultural production; culinary, artistic, and technical sophistication—it was equal to or superior to the rest of the world. Much as rich nations like Japan and the United States today buy little from sub-Saharan Africa, China had long viewed Europe as too poor and backward to be of commercial interest.6

The Chinese were not terribly wrong in their assessment. The viceroy of Mexico lamented the strength of China, writing to the Spanish king in 1573, “neither from this land nor from Spain, as far as can now be learned, can anything be exported thither that they do not already possess.”7 Historians such as Pomeranz help us understand “the Tocqueville thesis” in a new light: the revolutionary moment of American exceptionalism was not particularly American but part of a global trend, a “worldwide effort to destroy the oppressive institutions of the past.”8 Even China was not immune to these dynamics; its European encounters played a central role in its collapse and restructuring.

While Pomeranz demands that we take a broader view,9 Jaume takes us in a different direction: America’s great book, it seems, is truly (and almost exclusively) French. The lesson Jaume teaches—that it is the French intellectual context that produced Democracy in America, and not the material-ethnographic observations that Tocqueville made as he traveled about the States for some nine months—goes too far. It suggests that Tocqueville never needed to cross the Atlantic; he merely required the rich tradition of French intellectual life to write his great book about America. But there is something worthwhile in this strategy. With Jaume, we get to see Tocqueville as a man drawing on and at war with the ideas of his day. And for Jaume, the results of such battles were not particularly pleasant. While the case is not made explicitly, it’s quite clear that Jaume conflates the Tocqueville of Democracy in America with that of The Old Regime and the Revolution.10 The author of these books is the same, but the man is different. The reception of the first volume of Democracy in America weighs upon the pages of the second, published five years later, in 1840. Also burdening Tocqueville were the political developments in France, and these political frustrations would only increase. But while most readers use such observations to generate a “two Tocquevilles” thesis, wherein the hopeful exuberance of the young man is slowly extinguished with experience,11 according to Jaume, Tocqueville was cynical from the very start. Tocqueville’s is a “pessimistic prophesy … Indeed, Tocqueville did not describe two democracies but rather two despotisms, that of absolute monarchy and that of absolute democracy.”

Yet in limiting his concerns to the world of ideas, Jaume all but ignores Tocqueville’s experiences. This goes well beyond erasing America and extends to his later life in France. Tocqueville and others tried to resist Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1851 coup and have Napoleon tried for treason. But Bonaparte won. Reflecting on his struggles and loss in Paris, Tocqueville wrote to his old traveling companion, Beaumont:

I can’t tell you the disgust, contempt, and weariness caused me by the miserable, unproductive little combinations and agitations which still prevail here in what remains of the political world and which, fortunately without leading to any other action, produce a tangled skein of small intrigue … I sigh for my avenue of oaks and for the company of my cows.12

Tocqueville effectively left political society after the ascension of Napoleon III, spending the last eight years of his life in exile on his estate (and presumably, in the pleasant company of his oaks and cows). It was after this experience of disgust, contempt, and weariness that he wrote The Old Regime (1856), and here his cynicism certainly shines through. But Democracy is another story. In chronicling democracy, Tocqueville does not express the kind of unbridled joy that many today attribute to him. Nor does he marvel at the potential greatness of equality. Democracy and equality can take us far from liberty and therefore should be feared and, if possible, counterbalanced. As he traveled around the New World, Tocqueville wrote in his notebook that “an entirely democratic government is a machine so dangerous, even in America, that it has been necessary to take a host of precautions against the mistakes and passions of democracy.”13

But in making Tocqueville a man of the mind—engaged above all in debates among writers of the day—Jaume neuters the excitement and experience of a 26-year-old Frenchman traveling through a radically new world. Gone are the letters home that convey wonder; gone are the passages that suggest an enthusiasm and eagerness for what might come; gone is anything about the adventure that isn’t directly related to France. Only the older, jaded French political figure of Tocqueville remains. You might call mine a typically American optimism and exuberance about the Tocqueville of Democracy. So be it. Jaume’s brilliant book has taught me an important lesson: Democracy in America could never have been written without the vibrant intellectual context that was 19th-century France. But in the end we Americans are left to remind him of the global mash-up our nation represents, and to say to him: neither could it have been written without the place that was America. icon

  1. And the upstart nation seemed not to forget it—America’s founders certainly penned many love letters to its oldest Old World ally. In his 1821 Autobiography, Thomas Jefferson suggested that France held a nigh on unique place in humanity’s heart: “[A
  2. Quoted in Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006), p. 80.
  3. Tocqueville made observational tours not only of America but also of England, Ireland, and Algeria.
  4. Quoted in Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, “Liberty, Equality, and Colony,” Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2001.
  5. Scholars often define democracy in Tocqueville as meaning “equality of conditions,” in no small part because of the first sentence of his signature text: “Among the new things that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more forcefully than the equality of conditions” (Translation by George Lawrence [Harper & Row, 1965
  6. Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Knopf, 2011), p. 29.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 204.
  9. Importantly, Pomeranz argues that “Europe” and “China” are far more varied spaces than such broad terms suggest. As such, he does not simply demand that we look globally. He also insists that regional variation is central to our understanding of “The Great Divergence.”
  10. Jaume’s book is almost exclusively focused on Democracy in America. While his journey through the text is a scholarly triumph, primarily limiting his thoughts to it is also a problem. For all his attention to context, he all but ignores other of Tocqueville’s writings (like those on Algeria); as such the context that matters is other scholars and not the broader system of thought that Tocqueville develops. Reading Jaume you cannot help but think that this morning he forgot more about Tocqueville than you ever knew; yet still, such omissions make for an interpretation of Tocqueville’s work that is in important ways limited.
  11. See Seymour Drescher, “Tocqueville’s Two ‘Democracies,’” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 25, no. 2, 1964. This line of thought is also taken up in Brogan’s biography (see note 2).
  12. Quoted in Brogan, p. 530.
  13. Entry of September 30, 1831. Quoted in Brogan, p. 185.