Author’s Response: The Man Who Understood Democracy (Olivier Zunz)

13 July 2022

**This is the author’s response to a series of four reviews – two in French and two in English – of Olivier Zunz’s The Man Who Understood Democracy.

Last week, we published the first review: Voyage dans les arcanes de la pensée Tocquevillienne” by Baptiste Gauthey, and the second review: “The Limits of Tocqueville’s Understanding” by Jeremy Jennings.

This week, the third and fourth reviews were published: “Tocqueville : Penseur et acteur de la démocratie” by Madeleine Rouot and “The Maimonides of Democracy” by Cheryl Welch.**

It is with deep appreciation for the four critical readings of The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville. The Man Who Understood Democracy published in this Tocqueville21 Forum that I will say something of the circumstances which prompted me to write this biography. I will also note some aspects of Tocqueville’s personality to which I paid special attention in outlining his seminal contribution to democracy and liberalism.

I first set out to understand not just Tocqueville’s ideas but how he arrived at them, and the context in which he formulated them, in teaching an undergraduate seminar at the University of Virginia on “Reading Tocqueville.” Students were naturally stunned when they discovered that a young French aristocrat,  only two or three years older than them, from a monarchist family, with only a hesitant knowledge of English and no real idea of what he was going to see, emerged from a short 9 and 1/2 months in the United States in 1831-32 with a powerful new understanding of modern history as a vital struggle between liberty and equality, and produced a work that has ever since helped Americans and others around the world think of themselves and their society anew.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville was largely silent on his sources. He was content to say he had done his homework and the reader should trust him. To know more as I was reading along with students, I followed the lead of a small group of scholars who had delved into Tocqueville’s papers. It was my good fortune, as Madeleine Rouot points out, to begin my query as the edition of Tocqueville’s Œuvres Complètes at Gallimard was slowly nearing completion (an editorial project begun in the early fifties, which took over 70 years to complete). I read closely and prepared with Arthur Goldhammer an English-language edition of Tocqueville’s (and Beaumont’s) extensive travel diaries, letters home to family and friends, and related material. I could then assess Tocqueville’s arguments in Democracy in America against his recorded observations. I did not realize immediately I had embarked on a much longer journey through Tocqueville’s life.

As I worked on the biography, I sought to understand how Tocqueville continued to develop his early ideas on democracy not only as an intellectual reflecting on the changing world around him but also and simultaneously as a politician pledged to action and reform. The thirty-two volumes of the Œuvres Complètes (in eighteen tomes) comprise all of his parliamentary papers which I, of course, supplemented with research of my own.

Tocqueville was conscious of living in a special moment in history. He told his British friend Henry Reeve, his first translator, that because aristocracy was already dead when his life began and democracy did not yet exist, he was, as he put it, “perfectly balanced between past and future.” He sought to become a significant player in the important transformations of his lifetime. Indeed, he experienced two bloody revolutions in France—first in 1830, which brought a constitutional monarchy, and then in 1848, which instituted a republic he joined. He was briefly imprisoned during what Karl Marx famously named “the eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” when Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew orchestrated his elevation from president of the Second Republic to emperor of the Second Empire.

Tocqueville ran several electoral campaigns. Elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, he took on great causes: the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, the rehabilitation of criminals (following his prison investigation in the United States), the defence of church-run schools as an acceptable alternative to state schools, and legal and constitutional reforms. Intense work on all these issues naturally influenced his thinking on democracy. He told his brother that holding office gave him, otherwise “lost in theory,” a chance to “handle the most precious interests of the population.”

His was a life in both letters and politics not as separate activities but as interrelated means to turn greater equality into a source of liberty for a large number of citizens. He wanted to see a society where individual and general interests join and become one. In the United States, Tocqueville witnessed a phenomenon heretofore unknown to him, in which individuals served the common good by satisfying their personal ambitions. He labelled the practice “self-interest properly understood.” As he jotted in his notebook, “ancient republics operated on the principle that the particular interest was to be sacrificed to the general good.… The principle of this republic seems to me to require the particular interest to serve the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent egotism appears to be the axis about which the whole machine revolves.” Tocqueville went on later to argue that turning self-interest into a benefit for all was a positive development for civilization because self-interest was in so much greater supply than virtue. One could not be more tolerant of human weakness.

While Tocqueville became an ardent defender of democracy, he was nonetheless keenly alert to its weaknesses, including its susceptibility to demagoguery, despotism, and violent revolutionary upheaval, having lost many relatives to the guillotine during the Terror that followed the French Revolution.

Always thinking comparatively, Tocqueville travelled widely not only in America but also toured England several times, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Algeria. He worked comparatively, as Jeremy Jennings underscores, but he was rarely clear about the terms of comparison. He used observations in one country to make a case about another. He relied on British examples of industrial exploitation to describe the danger of an emerging industrial democracy in America. He reflected on the French state’s repression of associations to hail the virtue of American associations he had not observed in any detail. I give many examples of this in the biography. To Tocqueville, this was all part of his strategy to guide democracy towards the common good. Even the first volume of Democracy in America, closest to the travel notes, relied on description only as building blocks of a larger theoretical construct. And what Tocqueville missed did not necessarily affect his judgment. To give one concrete example, Tocqueville did not recognize the growth of evangelical Protestantism in America despite the Second Great Awakening unfolding under his own eyes, but he was right to insist in Democracy in America that America combined the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. He could then argue for his French readership that the Catholic church’s ideal of universalism made it best suited for democracy. Here Cheryl Welch rightly talks about Tocqueville’s “alchemy of observation and intuition.”  Tocqueville’s grand theory of democracy in volume two of Democracy in America was clearly more invention than observation—as John Stuart Mill, the keenest critic at the time—realized. The wonder is that Tocqueville’s inventions ended up more often than not resembling reality more than his observations.

Tocqueville participated in all the great controversies of his time in the halls of government, the Chamber, academies and scholarly societies, Parisian salons, and the newspapers. I set out to retrace how he combined these multiple commitments. Tocqueville consistently synthesized them to express, as Jeremy Jennings notes, “the character of democracy.”

In the process, Tocqueville kept revisiting the same issues and perfecting his grasp of them. He grew with them in important ways. Tocqueville’s readers are often struck by the stylistic differences between his two masterpieces, Democracy in America and The Ancien Régime and the Revolution. Democracy in America is a young man’s book, full of (controlled) passion, with brilliant hunches, yet disorganized. Tocqueville felt the need to write it twice to give it a more theoretical bent. The Ancien Régime and the Revolution Tocqueville published shortly before his premature death is the work of a seasoned writer and a politician who had experienced the exercise of power. As a piece of literature, it is perfectly calibrated—there is not an extra word in it—and brimming with erudition. Tocqueville died before he had a chance to produce the intended sequel. He left us only reading notes and a few short drafts of his planned history of the French Revolution and Napoleonic empire, and one can only imagine the brilliant analytical narrative he would have produced of the long French Revolution “made in the name of liberty but tragically ending in despotism,” characteristic of the cycle of freedom and dependence—a decidedly French malady—he had diagnosed.  Tocqueville became a symbol of political opposition in his domestic exile after Louis-Napoleon’s coup pushed him to resign in protest from the French Chamber and local political office he still held.

As a writer and a politician, Tocqueville attempted against the odds to operate a singular blend of theory and practice. Even when discouraged, as after his frustrating stint as minister of foreign affairs in 1849, his was not a compartmentalized life fragmented among various kinds of activities but a creative mix of political theory and policymaking. He embraced such high stakes as “the government of the country by the country” and the reconciliation of church and state. As a biographer, I was of course retracing his various ventures – observer of distinct cultures, polemicist in the press, policymaker in the Chamber, social reformer, historian, and assessing his actions as well as his thought. That Tocqueville is considered one of the great political philosophers of the modern age but is remembered only as a mediocre politician did not matter in writing the biography because his qualities as a political philosopher heavily depended on his engagement in politics, as Baptiste Gauthey notes.

All this was plenty to keep the biographer busy but there was more. Tocqueville had a genuine gift for lasting friendship. Here is a man who was shy and diffident, never at ease with colleagues in the Chamber, and yet he forged deep friendships, often sustained through richly detailed correspondence. The galaxy of correspondents included American informants (abolitionist Charles Sumner, historian Jared Sparks, political philosopher Francis Lieber), British friends (John Stuart Mill, economist Nassau William Senior), and some of the most important men of his time in France. He corresponded not only with intellectual and political figures but also with family members, old friends of his teenage years, and of course constituents. Correspondence was a daily activity. Of the thirty-two volumes of his complete works, eighteen are exclusively volumes of correspondence, revealing to the reader his engrossing debates with colleagues in the Chamber and the Academies, conversations in the Parisian salons of the July Monarchy, and details about his electoral campaigns, among many other things. Remarkably, he was able to establish genuine personal connections and maintain real exchanges of ideas with almost all of his correspondents, even some he hardly knew. As a biographer, reading this immense collection of letters closely, I came to share Tocqueville’s emotions, worry about his responses to events, and identify with the issues he faced. The main thing these letters did for me was to convince me of Tocqueville’s integrity in both expressing his convictions and voicing his doubts, and this gave a moral quality to the life I tried to narrate.

I, of course, made judgment calls. I believe the weight of the evidence shows Tocqueville passionately committed to democracy as the best form of government where equality is the source of liberty for the greater number. I see him deeply influenced by the American example throughout his life as a writer and politician. I describe him as a public intellectual with moral responsibility. Tocqueville was haunted by doubt, but he channelled his anxieties into a creative force, always looking for the better formulation, respecting complexity, and he knew how to change his mind when confronted with new evidence.

I have been asked many times what Tocqueville would say were he to return today and find democracy in crisis. Tocqueville knew democracy to be fragile, resting on collective will towards a shared goal, and sustained by hard-to-acquire habit of liberty. We can only be struck by the similarities between the concerns he expressed and ours today: fear of extremists taking a hold of power, economic inequality limiting opportunity, and lawlessness destroying trust. At the same time, Tocqueville’s life has the power to inspire us to sustain our democracy in every feasible way, remembering that he developed his ideas partly for their beauty but mostly as tools of human improvement.


Olivier Zunz is the James Madison Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia. Among other works, he is the author of Why the American Century? (1998) and the editor of The Tocqueville Reader (2002).

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