The Limits of Tocqueville’s Understanding

8 July 2022

** This is the second of four reviews of Olivier Zunz’s The Man Who Understood Democracy. Yesterday, we published the first review: Voyage dans les arcanes de la pensée Tocquevillienne” by Baptiste Gauthey.

After the fourth review, Zunz will respond. **

All Tocqueville scholars will be delighted to see the appearance of this book. Olivier Zunz has dedicated a considerable portion of his career to working on Tocqueville, producing numerous essays and several volumes of Tocqueville’s writings in translation, all of which have considerably helped the English reader to extend their knowledge of a man who remains frequently misunderstood. Nor will Tocqueville scholars (and hopefully a wider audience) be disappointed by what they read. The Man Who Understood Democracy must now stand as the authoritative biography of Alexis de Tocqueville, far surpassing the achievements of earlier biographers such as Hugh Brogan. From start to finish, it is elegantly written, judicious, erudite, and a hugely insightful and informative read. It should be added that Princeton University Press have done Zunz proud, delivering a fine-looking volume with an excellent set of well-chosen illustrations.

As a biography, it is hard to think of anything of significance that Zunz has left out of his account of Tocqueville’s life. Tocqueville’s earliest years are sketched out in an introductory chapter appropriately entitled “Learning to Doubt”, where the importance of Tocqueville’s early reading of Guizot and (most interestingly) John Lingard on English history is neatly brought into focus. This of course is followed by an account of Tocqueville’s travels to North America (something that is far from easy to summarize) and the writing of both Democracy in America and the jointly-authored report on prison reform. England and its aristocracy figure as a counterpoint to American democracy. There then follows a vivid account of Tocqueville’s largely unsuccessful attempt to launch himself into the world of the politics of the July Monarchy, an attempt thwarted in part, according to Zunz, by his failure to “figure out how to turn his ideas about democracy into a political program.” This bit of the story contains an insight that had never crossed my mind: namely, that Tocqueville’s family should not have been surprised by Tocqueville’s choice of Mary Mottley as his wife. He had virtually announced it in his admiration for the manner in which Americans respected the marriage bond and their attachment to the ideal of conjugal happiness. It is here that Zunz displays a sure-footed knowledge of the intellectual milieu and complex political environment in which Tocqueville operated. We also witness Tocqueville’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the electors of Normandy (something not helped by the fragility of his stomach) and to move towards obtaining the highest honours of French intellectual life.

Already, as Zunz makes clear, Tocqueville had become aware of the fragility of political liberty and of how easily it could be sacrificed to the drive for equality. What Zunz also shows is that Tocqueville resisted broadening the electorate in France, arguing that this was not, as it might appear at first glance, “an inexplicable contradiction” from someone who had envisioned “progressively broader political participation.” Tocqueville, Zunz argues, had never endorsed universal male suffrage in the United States, and, in line with this stance, his focus in France was concentrated on the workings of government and ending corruption as a prelude to the inculcation of the habits of political liberty. Without that habit, the French would rush headlong towards their own version of the tyranny of the majority, a tyranny made worse by the absence of the American system of checks and balances. It is in this context that Zunz makes the telling observation that the liberty Tocqueville loved was neither the aristocratic liberty of privilege nor the negative liberty of rights “but a demanding personal exertion to achieve great things—the positive liberty of effort from which everything else flows.” From this followed a deepening commitment to fostering the improvement of the intellectual and material condition of the lower classes, a commitment, as Zunz shows, rooted in a religiously-grounded social conscience.

Less easily resolved is what Zunz describes as the conflict between Tocqueville the democrat and Tocqueville the advocate of imperial conquest. This is a subject that has received a lot of attention in recent years, much of it designed to disqualify Tocqueville’s thought in its entirety. Here Zunz does not mince words. Tocqueville, he concedes, was an “ardent colonialist.” This, he shows, had many dimensions, mostly driven by Tocqueville’s desire “to see France recover its role as a power broker in world affairs and regain its place as a major colonial presence as it had been in the lost days of the New France.” This, Zunz argues, meant supporting measures to secure the long-term economic viability of French Caribbean possessions, challenging English domination of the seas, seeking to ensure France had a say in international treaties concerning the Middle East (about which, to the dismay of John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville was prepared to contemplate war with the British) and, most importantly, the colonisation of Algeria. Where this led Tocqueville is brought out by Zunz in unambiguous terms. With regard to the British Navy’s interference with the French slave trade, for example, Tocqueville was resolute in opposing the right of British ships to search French vessels, thereby proving himself, as Zunz writes, “unwilling to cede even a small fraction of national sovereignty in defense of the universal human freedom he claimed to support.” Tocqueville supported French colonisation of Polynesian islands in the Pacific, American claims to Oregon against those of the British, and, of course, the forced colonisation of Algeria. On the latter, Zunz makes the important point that there was nothing unusual about Tocqueville’s position as it was in line with “a near-complete national consensus ….in heralding colonisation as national glory.” Note however that it was not a complete consensus. There were those who opposed French ambitions from the outset. Tocqueville knew of these views and personally knew many of those who voiced them, but he was never convinced by them. Zunz’s explanation is a simple one. Tocqueville, he writes, was “blinded by nationalistic pride” and he could never reconcile his view of France’s national interest with his democratic values. All this is true but there is here the possible danger that it downplays the extent to which Tocqueville was deeply critical of French policy in Algeria. What is certain is that Tocqueville was determined to see Algeria with his own eyes and that he was deeply sceptical about the positive picture presented by General Bugeaud and his companions.

Zunz’s account also invites the conclusion that supporting French colonization of Algeria was not the only occasion where Tocqueville’s judgement failed him. Another example is the attribution of the causes of the class war that came to characterize the Second Republic to socialist ideology. For a man with such a developed social conscience Tocqueville showed scant interest in the plight of the Parisian poor. Likewise, Tocqueville completely misjudged the political dynamic that saw the rise to power of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte. Indeed, the constitutional article proposed by Tocqueville to deny the consecutive re-election of the President effectively sealed the Second Republic’s fate. As we read, all that remained for Tocqueville were years of declining health and the unfulfilled attempt to understand and explain the tragedy of French history. If Tocqueville’s final days in Cannes are treated briefly, there is nonetheless an illuminating discussion of his relationship with Madame Swetchine. Both, Zunz writes, “agreed in advocating for Christianity as a form of individual liberation rather than as blind submission to papal authority.”

There is clearly much to learn from and much to enjoy in Olivier Zunz’s biography. Are there however any questions to be asked? One, in particular, strikes me. In his prologue—where, it might be added, the full horror of what befell the extended Tocqueville family during the reign of Terror is fully revealed—Zunz acknowledges that the depth and sincerity of Tocqueville’s support for democracy has often been questioned. But, according to him, “Tocqueville’s deepest belief was that democracy is a powerful, yet demanding, political form,” a conviction that has kept his work “alive, read, and discussed.” In truth, I am inclined to agree, but I am not sure that Zunz’s text makes the case as strongly and as clearly as he might wish. In brief, does he succeed in showing that Tocqueville was “the man who understood democracy”? Part of the problem here simply derives from the narrative form demanded of a biography. The message gets lost in the density of the detail. Content hides the thesis.

But there is perhaps more to the issue. When reading the chapters examining Tocqueville’s travels across the United States, it is striking how many times Zunz points out what Tocqueville did not see and what he failed to understand. He is by no means alone in doing this. Inter alia, we are told that Tocqueville developed only a partial understanding of American Protestantism. He failed to grasp the importance of New York as a great maritime centre. The national unity on show on the Fourth of July masked political divisions that Tocqueville failed to divine. Tocqueville paid no attention to local politics. Viewing the United States through “a French lens,” Tocqueville underestimated its economic dynamism, crossing the most vital economic region of the country “without realizing it.” The many forms of religious experience in the United States eluded Tocqueville’s comprehension, his focus largely fallen on the Unitarians he had met. Tocqueville overlooked the cotton mills of Lowell. He failed to observe the formation of a new two-party political system. And so on and so on. All of this might be true, although my personal view is that Tocqueville learned far more about America during his visit than is generally acknowledged and that he was a far more assiduous observer than he is often given credit for. Nonetheless, if true, it rather begs the question of how, if Tocqueville misunderstood so much about the primary case of democracy he investigated, he came to understand the character of democracy so well. By what mysterious process were his conclusions arrived at? One well-known response is to suggest that Tocqueville might just as well have stayed at home, that the United States was incidental to the story he wanted to tell. As I indicate above, I am not convinced. Rather we might care to pay more attention to the manner in which Tocqueville reflected upon what he had seen after he had returned from America and, as Zunz correctly observes, to the place of comparison as Tocqueville’s “favourite investigative tool.” It was out of this that came what Tocqueville described to Chateaubriand as the idea that obsessed his mind: “the irresistible march of democracy.” If then I have a criticism of Olivier Zunz’s excellent volume it is that I would have written an epilogue bringing this all-important theme well and truly to the fore and, in doing so, would have left the reader in no doubt about why the life and ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville still matter. Nonetheless: bravo!



Jeremy Jennings is Professor of Political Theory at King’s College London. His Travels with Alexis de Tocqueville will shortly be published by Harvard University Press.

Tags: , , ,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *