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In the middle of the first volume of Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that “if these lines are ever read in America, I am sure of two things: first, that all of my readers, to a man, will speak out to condemn me, and second, that in the depths of their conscience many of them will absolve me of any wrong.” While this may be the only time in the book that Tocqueville speculated about its reception by Americans, the question of how his own countrymen would parse the study was on his mind shortly after its publication. “I please many people of conflicting opinions,” he lamented to a friend, “not because they understand me, but because they find in my work…only from a single side, arguments favorable to their passion of the moment.” The matter was personal: Tocqueville had designs for himself, his book and his readers; but for whom did he write Democracy in America and what did he mean to impart? 

About the Author

Elias Altman
Elias Altman is an associate editor at Lapham's Quarterly.

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These questions animate Lucien Jaume’s excellent Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty (Princeton; $35), translated by Arthur Goldhammer, and they follow from the assumption that “true admiration is historical.” It’s a fine truth for Jaume to hold self-evident, because a good deal of Tocqueville’s success lay in his timing. Born in 1805—when, to his mind, “aristocracy was already dead” and “democracy did not yet exist”—Tocqueville wanted to know the future without losing the past, to chart a way forward for both democrats and conservatives to follow. He sailed from France to the United States at the age of 25, and if there was a country whose fate was more debated in 1831 than a fifty-five-year-old republic in the third year of Andrew Jackson’s first term, it was a centuries-old monarchy, interrupted by a democratic revolution and a dictatorship, in the second year of Louis-Philippe’s contested reign. There can be little doubt that in Democracy in America, Tocqueville sought to understand the workings of one nation through what he knew of the other; what he makes less clear is which one is the other.

Descended on one side from a Norman who fought with William the Conqueror in 1066 and on the other from two grandparents who lost their heads in 1794, Tocqueville knew well his own class’s reservations about democracy, and Jaume shows how, like Shakespeare playing with Plutarch’s plotting, Tocqueville deftly repurposed conservative French ideas for his American drama. 
Félicité Robert de Lamennais argued that the exercise of a man’s “particular reason” undermined the shared beliefs and “authority of common sense” on which society rested; and because democracy had by definition no ruler outside itself, as Joseph de Maistre contended, it was merely “an association of individuals without sovereignty.” Tocqueville replied: in America the dogma of popular sovereignty is gospel, and the shared belief in the power of the people binds everyone tighter than a king could; every man knows he is weak alone, and so his individual reason leads him to put faith in the authority of “common opinion”—the public—leading society to act by itself on itself. 

Mere anarchy wasn’t loosed upon the world, and it was Tocqueville’s coup de grace to say that democracy held the center all too well. It promoted a passion for well-being, a love of personal liberties over political ones; every man was quick to place his trust in the public to handle its own affairs. “I reproach equality,” Tocqueville wrote, “not for leading men into the pursuit of forbidden pleasures but for absorbing them entirely in the search for permitted ones.” He elevated a Pascalian thought to a principle of the democratic age: “the desire for equality becomes ever more insatiable as the degree of equality increases,” and “that equality recedes a bit further every day, yet it never disappears from view, and as it recedes, it entices [the people] to chase after it.” Equality eroded quality, and Tocqueville mourned the hit that literature took: all books were not created equal, and “for every great writer there are thousands of retailers of ideas.”

An antidote was dualism, something to counter the merely material, and in speaking of religion’s special utility in democracy, Tocqueville echoed Robespierre telling the Jacobins that if God did not exist, they would have to invent Him. Tocqueville was sufficiently aristocratic to believe that man, neither self-begotten nor self-raised, could not be the measure of all things, but democratic enough to trust that men together could prevail, even endure. To himself, he assigned the task of scouting a middle path that “would lead neither to Heliogabalus nor to Saint Jerome.”

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Jaume, a senior researcher at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris, sees in Tocqueville a political scientist, sociologist, moralist and writer, and discusses in detail his labors in each guise, the wonderful effect of which is to reveal how unified the man was—like the country he visited, vast and containing multitudes, as if Tocqueville saw himself in his portrait of America. Which is perhaps why he cast its reception in personal terms. He respected his readers—those living in a democracy and those who soon would—and wanted to instruct them, knowing that “people do not receive the truth from their enemies, and their friends seldom offer it.” He hoped to be taken whole, not cherry-picked to please a transient passion. It isn’t simply that we are what we write; we ought to be those for whom we write. The best books, Pascal observed, “are those whose readers believe they could have written them.” Tocqueville made himself a mirror, allowing his readers a choice to condemn or absolve the reflection.

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