Along with the Bible and Moby-Dick, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has got to be one of the world’s least-read classics. Sure, a lot of people dip into it in college, and the more assiduous among us learn that there is no better way to spice up a poli-sci term paper than with a Tocquevillism or

two. But life is short, and 900-plus pages on the glories of Jacksonian democracy are long, which is why almost everyone reads a chapter here or there and leaves it at that.

This is unfortunate, because reading Democracy in America the way it was meant to be read, i.e., from cover to cover, can be a valuable exercise in demythologizing. Tocqueville’s book is not all bad. It is interesting on the subject of slavery and the plight of the Indians, and its discussion of the contrasts between the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies is downright insightful. But its shortcomings are impossible for all but the most ideologically blinkered to ignore. Although Arthur Goldhammer, the distinguished translator of the Library of America’s new edition, dutifully praises Tocqueville’s prosestyle for its “almost paradoxical combination of solidity and grace,” the truth is that Democracy in America is windy and repetitive. If Roddy Doyle thinks James Joyce could have used a good editor, then Tocqueville could have used an entire team. Democracy in America is also humorless and, oddly enough for what is at least on some level a travel book, nearly devoid of local color. Anyone interested in the actual look and feel of the pre-Civil War United States would be better off consulting Dickens’s American Notes or, even better, the highly amusing Domestic Manners of the Americans, a travelogue by a Tory Englishwoman named Frances Trollope (mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope), so acerbic that it still raises patriotic hackles.

Politically, Tocqueville gets a few things right about the country he toured for nine months in 1831-32, but considerably more wrong. He reported that slavery was in retreat at a time when it was undergoing its most furious expansion, that democratic sentiment would prevent a weak federal government from interfering with individual states wishing to go their own way and that slavery in the South would likely end in some sort of racial Armageddon (in contrast to the Civil War, in which whites and blacks fought jointly against the Southern slavocracy). Because he saw democracy as arising out of the middle class, for whom he felt the aristocrat’s characteristic disdain, he believed that the society it gave rise to would never be more than mediocre. Democratic nations, he wrote, would never produce great leaders or great writers or develop a taste for martial glory. During the cold war, pundits loved to cite Tocqueville’s prediction that the emerging mega-states of America and Russia would one day “sway the destinies of half the globe.” Now that the world has gone from two superpowers to one, that forecast no longer seems so impressive.

So why all the praise for an often woolly-headed work that is not even that well written? One reason is that Democracy in America is immensely flattering toward its subject, and Americans love to be flattered. To be sure, Tocqueville found much to criticize during his visit. He thought Americans carried patriotism to absurd extremes, that their obsession with money was a bore and that racism was even more appalling in the North than in the South. On the other hand, not only did he praise American democracy to the skies, he wrote as if America had a veritable patent on the genre. For Tocqueville, the infant United States was democracy in the same way that the infant Soviet Union would define socialism for many observers in the 1930s.

But even more important than Tocqueville’s description of American democracy was his discussion of how it had emerged. Despite his aristocratic background, Tocqueville believed popular self-government was the wave of the future. But as a member of a family decimated by the Terror of 1793-94–his own father’s hair had turned white at age 22 waiting to be guillotined, while the same experience had reduced his mother to a nervous invalid–he was terrified of the popular revolution needed to bring it about. His fascination with America stemmed from his belief that, the Revolutionary War notwithstanding, it had arrived at the first without passing through the second. Rather than building democracy from the ground up, a process that struck him as necessarily bloody and perilous, it had fallen into one that was ready-made. Democracy in America quotes reverently from the Mayflower Compact, in which the Pilgrims vowed to form themselves into “a body of political society, for the purpose of governing ourselves.” To Tocqueville, this was popular sovereignty in embryo. Rather than lopping off the heads of the aristocracy, the Pilgrims merely had to plant the seeds of democratic self-government and watch them grow. Democracy was able to unfold organically in a way that was impossible in less benign environments.

“The great advantage of the Americans is to have come to democracy without having to endure democratic revolution and to have been born equal rather than become so.” So Democracy in America sums up popular sovereignty’s Immaculate Conception in the New England wilderness. What’s more, America’s was not just non-revolutionary, but anti: “Men in democracies”–which is to say in the United States–“change, alter, and replace things of secondary importance every day but are extremely careful not to tamper with things of primary importance. They like change but dread revolutions.” In Europe, democracy was assumed to be radical. In America, it was assumed to be the opposite. The more democratic the society, the less taste it would have for anything smacking of fundamental upheaval.

Needless to say, this has been music to right-wing ears, which is why Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard and Olin Foundation favorite, has pronounced Democracy in America to be “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America”; and why the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Ledeen recently published a volume with the intriguing title Tocqueville on American Character: Why Tocqueville’s Brilliant Exploration of the American Spirit Is as Vital and Important Today as It Was Nearly Two Hundred Years Ago. People like Mansfield and Ledeen are grateful to Tocqueville for establishing what they see as a virtual US copyright on the D-word and all that it stands for. Other countries may claim to be democratic, but only the United States is the real thing. Where others must learn about the doctrine, it knows. To grow as a democracy, it merely has to be true to itself.

But popular sovereignty is not an easy subject, and Democracy in America is best understood as part of Tocqueville’s life-long effort to come to grips with some of its paradoxes. Contrary to common belief, popular sovereignty does not mean just popular power but, rather, supreme power, which is to say power answerable only to itself and hence unconstrained by any outside force. Tocqueville claimed to support sovereignty, but at the same time feared that untrammeled popular authority could all too easily devolve into tyranny of the majority. In the absence of any countervailing force, what was to prevent a sovereign people from behaving just as repressively toward their enemies as the ancien régime had behaved toward them? A monarch, Tocqueville observed, “can instantly punish any faults that he perceives, but he cannot presume to perceive all the faults that he ought to punish.” But popular sovereignty “is not only all-powerful but also ubiquitous,” a true panopticon. What was to stop the democratic majority, then, from falling into even worse despotism? By itself, Tocqueville feared, the answer was nothing, which is why he devoted his life to searching for some means to structure democracy from within so that popular power would be simultaneously supreme yet constrained by some higher concept of law or morality.

Thus his fascination with the United States, which he believed had discovered the philosopher’s stone needed to turn revolutionary democracy into its opposite. He marveled at the ingenious mechanisms that the new republic had come up with. “In America,” he wrote, “the Constitution…is the source of all power”–the Constitution, that is, and not the people who had ordained and established it. Thanks to a healthy distrust of centralized authority, Americans had made sure that federal power would be “hobbled and incomplete” so that “the exercise of that sovereignty poses no danger to liberty.” As a good Jeffersonian–Jefferson, he declared, is “the greatest democrat yet to emerge from the bosom of American democracy”–Tocqueville assumed that democracy was strongest at the base and dissipated the higher up the governmental pyramid one went. Because Jeffersonian democrats identified most strongly with the immediate and the tangible, which is to say with their community and state as opposed to distant and abstract federal government, “it appears certain that if one portion of the Union seriously wished to separate from the other, it could not be prevented from doing so.” Remarkably, Democracy in America advances a constitutional theory that would later become a cornerstone of Confederate ideology: the notion that the Union was no more than a contract among free and independent states, one that the parties to the agreement could dissolve anytime they wished. As Tocqueville put it:

The states formed the confederation of their own free will. In uniting, they did not forfeit their nationality and did not merge into a single people. If one of those states today decided to remove its name from the contract, it would be rather difficult to prove that it could not. If the federal government chose to contest this decision, it is not obvious that it could back up its choice with either might or right.

Either Harvey Mansfield skipped this passage or he is more of a neocon–short for neo-Confederate–than most people realize. Tocqueville was right on one count: The Constitution was indeed ambiguous on the secession issue, which just goes to show what Lincoln and his fellow Republicans were up against some two or three decades later. Rather than “prove” that the states did not have a constitutional right to go their separate ways, the best they could come up with was to insist that the nation as a whole trumped any notion of states’ rights. By declaring itself independent in 1776, the nation had transformed thirteen disparate colonies into thirteen states. Because it had given rise to the states, it was their superior, and consequently was in a position to determine whether they should stay or go. The argument was not so much unconstitutional as extra-constitutional: If the Constitution was above federal, state or local law, then the nation was above the Constitution. As tenuous as this may have seemed, the support of the people–the people of the nation-state, not of the smaller individual states–was all that was needed to give the doctrine life. Lincoln may have been on weak ground legally, but he was on the strongest possible ground democratically.

“No one in the United States,” Tocqueville noted, “has yet dared to propose the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society–a wicked maxim that seems to have been invented in an age of liberty to legitimize all the tyrants of the future.” The idea that democratic society could do whatever it wished–that it imposed law rather than obeyed it–was indeed a basic tenet of Jacobin ideology, which explains Tocqueville’s horror. Yet Lincoln would advance roughly the same thesis when he declared during the Civil War that “measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to…the preservation of the nation.” Rather than limited, democracy was unconstrained when its existence was threatened. The only law it was obliged to follow was the law dictating its own survival. While it could adhere to constitutional restraints if it so chose, it could shake them off whenever it felt that circumstances warranted. Either way, it was the final arbiter of its own actions. Tocqueville was wrong in seeing American democracy as in any way anti-revolutionary. To the contrary, in order to achieve what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” it would have to undergo a democratic revolution that, in terms of sheer body count, was roughly ten times bloodier than anything seen in France in 1789-94. The revolution had not arrived yet, but it would shortly.

Following publication of the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835 (a second, less successful volume appeared in 1840), Tocqueville won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies and turned his attention to French colonial policy, writing a series of articles, speeches and parliamentary reports that Jennifer Pitts assembled a few years ago in a highly useful collection, Writings on Empire and Slavery, which recently appearedin paperback. Still searching for some means of controlling the democratic volcano, Tocqueville now argued that colonial expansion was the key. Any nation that abandons its imperial responsibilities, he warned in an essay published in 1841, “visibly enters the period of its decline.” An imperial power in decline is one that ceases to overawe the masses and opens itself up to revolution from below. Moreover, Tocqueville said, industrialization had added a dangerous element to the mix. In a remarkable foreshadowing of The Communist Manifesto, he wrote in 1843:

Here is what we see today in all the great nations of Europe: the working class is increasing everywhere; it is growing not only in numbers but in power; its needs and its passions so directly influence the well-being of states and the very existence of governments, that all the industrial crises threaten more and more to become political crises.

Hence the importance of colonial markets, which served to bolster exports, buttress industrial expansion and temper the business cycle. Imperial expansion was essential to both economic growth and what Tocqueville described as “more tranquil” class relations at home.

This was Marxism avant la lettre. As a thoroughly modern imperialist, Tocqueville argued for colonial policies that were more rational and efficient, but no less brutal as a consequence. In Algeria, which France had begun conquering in 1830, he called for less micro-management on the part of government bureaucrats in Paris and greater leeway for colonial administrators on the scene. While initially optimistic concerning the prospects for peaceful coexistence, he was soon calling on troops to burn Arab and Berber harvests, seize unarmed civilians and “ravage the country” to quell resistance. In 1837 he predicted that Algerian Muslims and French settlers would eventually merge “to form a single people,” observing: “God is not stopping it; only human deficiencies can stand in its way.” But amid continued bloodshed, he declared four years later: “The fusion of these two populations is a chimera that people dream of only when they have not been to these places.” To better prosecute the war, he urged that a certain Gen. Louis de Lamoricière be placed in charge even though he showed “an extreme disdain for human life” and was without “an atom of liberalism in his person.” Liberals had to forgo their scruples abroad in order to achieve their goals at home.

Tocqueville was not a racist, and there is no evidence that he regarded Arabs as inherently inferior. But the notion that they might have the same national aspirations as other people was simply beyond his ken. Whatever popular sovereignty’s fate within France, the only sovereignty that mattered outside was French sovereignty over any and all conquered peoples and territories. While colonial administrators should respect Arab customs and try to work with traditional Arab leaders, Tocqueville emphasized that “political power…should be in the hands of the French.” That was one privilege they must not relinquish if they wished to hold on to their conquests.

Tocqueville also employed what might be called a democratic-imperialist approach to the issue of slavery. Britain had astonished the world in the 1830s by unilaterally freeing approximately a million slaves in Jamaica and its other Caribbean possessions. Predictions of disaster had proved unfounded. Newly freed slaves had not slaughtered their ex-masters at the first opportunity; to the contrary, as Tocqueville pointed out a decade later, they had “lost no time in displaying all the tastes and acquiring all the needs of the most civilized peoples.” Rather than lapsing into barbarism, they had proved to be just as rational in calculating where their self-interest lay as whites. Emancipation, Tocqueville wrote, had shown that the typical ex-slave was “active when he worked for wages, avid for the goods offered by civilization when he could acquire them, loyal to the law when the law had become benevolent toward him, ready to learn as soon as he had perceived the utility of instruction, sedentary when he had a home, regular in his mores when he had been permitted to enjoy the joys of family.”

If the colonial authorities created a political, economic and legal structure that encouraged thrift, labor and a sense of responsibility, the ex-slave would react accordingly. What mattered was not race but the larger circumstances in which the individual worked and lived. It was entirely up to the people in charge, i.e., the French, to determine whether their colonial possessions would grow or fall back into economic stagnation.

Thus, emancipation was advanced as a means of reinvigorating colonialism. If Tocqueville saw any contradiction between loosening bonds on one level and tightening them on another, he gave no indication. To the contrary, as a devotee of la mission civilisatrice, he saw freedom as a gift that France conferred. “These notions of freedom and equality that are weakening or destroying servitude everywhere: who spread them throughout the world?” he asked. “The English are doing nothing at the moment but applying our principles in their colonies. They are acting in accordance with what we still have the right to call the French sentiment.” The purpose of French imperialism was not only to increase French profits but to open up new fields for liberté, égalité, fraternité to conquer.

Needless to say, it is attitudes like these that would later get the French into such trouble in Algeria and Vietnam and that are still getting the United States into trouble today. More than just a pioneer of liberal constitutionalism, Tocqueville was a pioneer of liberal self-delusion.

Tocqueville thought of himself as a progressive and even as a bit of a leftist, but as events soon showed, that was delusory as well. By 1847 he was arguing against an extension of the suffrage on the grounds that it might contribute to the growing political disorder. In January 1848, he warned the Chamber of Deputies that a fresh wave of upheaval was impending: “Do you not see that the earth trembles anew? A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon”–a storm he still hoped to avert. When revolution in fact broke out a month later, he attempted to drum up support for a scheme to replace King Louis-Philippe with the King’s grandson, the 9-year-old Comte de Paris, as head of state. The idea went nowhere and a republic was declared instead, whereupon Tocqueville attempted to use his seat in the newly formed Constituent Assembly to steer it as much in an American, which is to say conservative, direction as he could. He argued for a bicameral legislature and a separately elected presidency, and in June helped oversee the suppression of a major working-class uprising in Paris. In a letter to a friend, he described the subsequent wave of street-fighting as “the most terrible of all civil wars, the war of class against class, of those who have nothing against those who have.” Given his lucrative family estate in Normandy, it is hardly surprising that he sided firmly with the latter.

Once again, Tocqueville sought to impose order from above on democratic forces welling up from below. Limited government, as he conceived of the term, ultimately boiled down to limited democracy–democracy that was not only subject to severe constitutional constraints from without but deficient in terms of its ability to learn and grow from within. In America, this meant arguing that democracy could not, and therefore should not, attempt to transcend Jeffersonian shibboleths about states’ rights and local control. In France, it meant attempting to split up and weaken the democratic movement at precisely the moment it needed to marshal its resources as a whole. Tocqueville’s proposal for a bicameral legislature went nowhere, but all too unfortunately, his proposal for a separate presidency caught on. Elections were held in 1849, and Louis Napoleon, a political adventurer who happened to be the late emperor’s nephew, won in a landslide on the basis of little more than name recognition and a carefully crafted appeal to liberal reformists and the authoritarian right. The upshot was an increasingly dangerous deadlock between the legislative and executive branches, a problem that the prince-president, as he was known, resolved in December 1851 by abolishing the republic, shuttering the Constituent Assembly and declaring a new empire with himself at the head as Napoleon III.

In his efforts to limit democracy, Tocqueville had wound up limiting it to the point of collapse. In 1848 he had argued that liberals wishing to counter the social threat would have to join forces with the most authoritarian elements, “men for whom one feels the most legitimate repugnance.” Following Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état, he now complained that the French public “is mad with fear of the socialists” and, as a result, “is incapable and, though I say it with much regret, unworthy of being free.” Given that the people had fallen short of the great man’s expectations, there was nothing for him to do but retire to his estate, where in 1859 he died of tuberculosis. In France, Tocqueville, who is completely at odds with the national tradition of dirigisme, is a minor intellectual figure. Only in America, where democracy has been checked and balanced to the point of collapse, does his cult live on.