Tocqueville’s Democratic Historians

18 August 2019

We’ve decided to experiment with a new feature on the blog called “close-reading Tocqueville.” The premise is simple: we’ll periodically select one chapter from Tocqueville’s corpus and comment on what we find.


To begin, I chose Tocqueville’s chapter, “On Certain Tendencies Peculiar to Historians in Democratic Centuries” (Democracy in America, II.1.20). The chapter follows a series of reflections on genre, in which Tocqueville asks how writers go about composing works of science, poetry, and drama in the democratic era. When it comes time to consider the genre of history, Tocqueville draws a customary contrast between the aristocratic and democratic style.


In many ways, aristocratic historians had it easier. They were still comfortable with what is now often derided as “the great man” approach to history and therefore attributed historical events to “a very small number of prominent actors” on the “world stage.” Tocqueville’s choice in metaphor harkens back to his preceding chapter on theater, in which Tocqueville judges drama to be the most democratic form of literature. Even in aristocratic ages, the theater is bound to feature non-aristocrats. But what is the democratic historian to do once the curtain falls on noble statesmen? Who are the protagonists of modern history?


Tocqueville notes that democratic historians are no longer beholden to the idea that single individuals define history. Yet they now face the challenge of teasing out the “infinitely more varied, more hidden, more complicated, less powerful” forces that underlie events. The modern historian feels compelled to contextualize; however, the sheer number of contexts to consider can become incapacitating. Tocqueville predicts that the historian soon “tires of such labor” and will deny individual influences altogether, in favor of focusing on very general causes. Tocqueville’s examples for these “general causes” include factors like a given country’s climate, its physical conditions, or the “nature of races.” Today’s equivalent of such catch-all explanations might be globalization, neoliberalism, or the reach of social media.


An attention to general causes has the benefit of concerning the population as a whole. Calculating the unemployment rate during the Great Depression, for instance, might tell us more about 1930s America than an oration by Cicero reveals about late-republican Rome. But Tocqueville worries that general causes will become the recourse of the mediocre historian. Although actual causation is quite difficult to discern, the democratic historian’s reliance on generalizations gives way—paradoxically—to a systematic way of thinking. Rather than allow facts to stand as discrete events, the democratic historian is compelled “to derive a system from them.” For Tocqueville, this temptation to construct a historical system, in lieu of a historical narrative, leads to a “blind fatality,” whereby democratic citizens come to think of themselves as powerless in the face of their nation’s origin, geography, etc. Today, sweeping histories of the anthropocene, empire, or capitalism might contribute to a similar civic paralysis.


Democracy in America is more a work of sociology than of history, but it is curious that, despite the emphasis Tocqueville thinks historians ought to continue placing on individual actors, his own work is devoid of heroes. If anything, Democracy in America is haunted by unnamed democratic villains—specifically, Andrew Jackson and Louis Philippe I. It’s a lot easier to identify demagogues, or people who betray or manipulate the will of the people, than to name genuine democratic heroes. Indeed, writing democratic history is so difficult because the democratic hero may turn out to be an oxymoron. Heroism is the stuff of aristocracy, while democracy is a collective effort—perhaps with no enduring protagonists. But lest we give up on history altogether, Tocqueville concludes with an emphasis on “the strength and independence” of the “social body.” For Tocqueville, the collective force of democratic peoples is not one general explanation among many. Rather, it arises as a particular fact about the modern age—and one which ordinary citizens ought to find empowering, whether or not they read about it in their history books.


Photo Credit: Sara Hamza, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, via Unsplash.


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1 Comment

  • Dan Gordon says:

    Interesting discussion. In one chapter, on how democracy has changed language, Tocqueville admits that he has been caught up in the democratic tendency to wield abstractions. He clearly realizes that his book displays some of the features of the democratic culture that he also criticizes in the book.

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