Clemenceau vs. Tocqueville

16 September 2020

Editor’s note: Patrick Weil and Thomas Macé’s new edition of the young Georges Clemenceau’s writings from America, Georges Clemenceau : Lettres d’Amérique, features a preface written by Bruce Ackerman. This preface, published in its French translation, appears here for the first time in its original English.


When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America in 1831, he was asking himself an obvious question: Why did the Revolution fail in France and succeed in the United States?


Yet he rejected the obvious answer. On this account, it was in the interest of France, and the other great European monarchies, to assist the Americans since their independence would seriously weaken British intervention in Continental affairs. This is precisely the reason why the French fleet intervened at Yorktown on behalf of the revolutionary cause. Without Admiral de Grasse, George Washington’s amateur militiamen would have been crushed by the disciplined troops under British command, and King George III would have continued to rule over the narrow strip of territory then inhabited by English-speaking settlers.


But when these liberated Englishmen met in Philadelphia in 1787 to construct their constitutional republic, they lacked the military and economic capacity to assist their fellow revolutionaries in France after the fall of the Bastille in 1789. As Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes dramatized, the prospect of a republican France posed a clear and present danger to the entire Continental order. The fate of the French constitutional initiatives of 1789, 1791, 1793, and 1795 would be determined on the battlefield, and nowhere else.


In contrast, the success of the Philadelphia Convention’s experiment in republican government would be determined by the outcomes of a series of bitterly fought elections during the two decades between 1787 and 1815. It was only after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo that the constitutional order proclaimed in Philadelphia was finally stabilized during the “Era of Good Feeling” inaugurated under the presidency of James Monroe.[1]


By the time Tocqueville arrived in the United States in 1831, the polarizing struggles of the first two American decades had been superseded by a decade of peace, prosperity, and constitutional legitimacy. Rather than emphasizing the novelty of current conditions, Tocqueville took them for granted and asked why they differed so dramatically from the continuing upheavals in France after Waterloo.


His famous answer contrasted the highly centralized character of post-Napoleonic government in France with the decentralized constitutional order prevailing in America. Instead of a Parisian elite imposing its will on the nation, significant action in Washington D.C. could only take place with wide-spread support from member-states with very different economic interests and ideological commitments. As a practical matter, such an overlapping consensus could not occur without the involvement of a host of civil society groups engaging on the local, regional, and national level. It is the decisive role of “bottom-up” public-regarding interest groups which, for Tocqueville, serves as the defining feature of Democracy in America. His thesis profoundly influenced political thought on both sides of the Atlantic upon its publication in 1835.


Precisely thirty years later, Georges Clemenceau arrived in New York City to confront a very un-Tocquevillian reality. America was emerging from the Civil War—the bloodiest bloodbath in the Western world between 1815 and 1914. Washington DC did not display any significant display of a bottom-up politics of consensus. It was the scene of a passionate effort by Radical Republicans in Congress to gain broad popular support for a sweeping constitutional reconstruction of the Union. So far as they were concerned, anything less radical would trivialize the deaths of a half-million Union soldiers who had died fighting to make Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation into a post-War reality. These Radical objectives, however, were rejected in principle by a broad coalition of conservatives, who were also a formidable force in the nation’s capital and the country at large.


Arriving in the United States immediately after medical school, a twenty-two-year-old Clemenceau took time off from his efforts to establish his professional credentials to serve as a journalist for Les Temps. He quickly began to submit regular reports analyzing the anti-Tocquevillian struggle over fundamental principle for a French audience. As he rightly understands, Lincoln issued his great Proclamation unilaterally in 1862 in his capacity as commander-in-chief in the midst of the war. But over the longer run, Lincoln had no intention of imposing a sweeping form of black emancipation by brute force if the Union ultimately won on the battlefield.


“With malice toward none, with charity for all”: As his Second Inaugural Address made clear, Lincoln was determined to “bind up the nation’s wounds” by enabling the Southern rebels to return to the Union without humiliation. As a consequence, he made it clear that he would only insist on an extremely limited form of emancipation before allowing southern states to gain readmission into the Union.


On the president’s view, the defeated rebels could continue to monopolize the franchise, and should not be required to grant voting rights to their former slaves. Nor should they be required to redistribute the land to the liberated slaves who had labored for centuries to enrich their masters. Indeed, the president was not even willing to insist that blacks be guaranteed the right to leave the plantation and start a new life for themselves as free men and women.[2]


We will never know, of course, whether Lincoln would have moved away from his wide-ranging accommodations to the defeated rebels if he had avoided assassination. Clemenceau does not address this issue, since he begins his reports just when Andrew Johnson is ascending to the White House after Lincoln’s assassination. Yet he correctly recognizes that the Johnson gives every sign of affirming, not betraying, Lincoln’s principle of accommodation.


At the same time, he also rightly emphasizes a second key point. While Lincoln was a masterful politician, Johnson’s personality was ill-suited to similar acts of statecraft. Instead, he pursued Lincoln’s policy of accommodation with iron-fisted determination, denouncing opponents as power-hungry opportunists. As Clemenceau shows, this only served to alienate a wide range of Northern Republicans, and liberated Southern blacks, from the accommodationist approach. Instead, tens of millions of Unionists began looking to the Republican leaders in Congress for the more Radical vision of Reconstruction they found lacking in Johnson. The president, in turn, increasingly looked to white Southerners, and their northern allies, for support.


Clemenceau’s account of this escalating conflict remains a priceless resource for twenty-first century readers. While American newspapers contained stories about the same events, they are full of particularistic details of day-to-day partisan struggles. In contrast, Clemenceau was reporting to a French audience on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. His aim was to provide the readers of Les Temps precisely what we need today—a series of short and incisive analyses of the on-going confrontations which generated one of the greatest struggles in American history over the constitutional identity of the Republic.


It is true, of course, that generations of jurists, political scientists and historians have also offered scholarly accounts of this great conflict. The leading academic schools of thought have greatly differed from one another over the past 150 years.[3] Nevertheless, Clemenceau’s reports have one priceless advantage over all of them. While major scholars continue to debate with one another, they all recognize one fundamental point. Despite the Radicals’ triumph in enacting the Fourteenth Amendment, it was the white rebels who ultimately succeeded in defeating the real-world fulfillment of its demand for “equal protection” for at least a century. As a consequence, they view the short-term victory of the Radicals with great skepticism and try to explain why and how it provoked an overwhelming backlash during the following decades.


Here is where Clemenceau offers a dramatically different view. His journalistic mission came to an end in early 1869 when the Radical triumph had reached its peak. Not only had Congress taken a series of unprecedented measures, including the use of military force, to gain the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment. Not only had they overwhelmed Johnson’s principled opposition to their aggressive interventions into Southern affairs. They had also come within a single vote of impeaching him.


Even more important, they had seen the voters ratify all their Radical moves by electing Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant in November 1868 over a Democratic candidate more sympathetic to Johnson’s inclusionary principles. As Grant assumed office in 1869, he gave every indication of supporting further Radical measures to guarantee social and political equality for black Americans.


Clemenceau reports on all these events with characteristic insight. He recognizes that the Radical push for real-world equality between 1865 and 1869 has provoked conservatives to intensify their mobilized opposition repeatedly. Rather than looking upon this backlash with anxiety, he considers it naive to expect anything else. After all, the American people were confronting a question that would determine their constitutional destiny for a long time to come. It was right and proper for the president and Congress to present their fellow citizens with principled alternatives; and it was silly to expect all citizens to vote the same the way when they cast their ballots.


Here is the point where Clemenceau makes his decisive break with Tocqueville. Not only does he provide a brilliant analysis of a very different form of democracy in America. He goes on to praise the Radicals for their refusal to compromise. His hero is Thaddeus Stevens, their leader in the House of Representatives:


Thaddeus Stevens, though broken by age and sickness, is far from pulling back in fear, has come out in favor of more radical measures than ever… Mr. Stevens, though noted as a man of extreme opinions, is all the same a formidable enemy to the former slavery party. What he says, he does, always, and in spite of everything, heeding no obstacles, and accepting no compromises… His enthusiasm carries him away, and his followers lag behind, but they follow all the same.[4]


Stevens’s absolute commitment to racial equality was also expressed in his private, as well as his public, life. He had maintained a loving relationship with his black housekeeper for twenty years and ended only with her death in 1868. Since his personal commitments defied deeply rooted taboos against miscegenation, they provoked endless denunciation by racists throughout the country. Nevertheless, Stevens stood his ground—no less importantly, so did his legion of followers.


Including Clemenceau. Upon hearing news of Stevens’s death in 1869, he published a letter mourning the passing of a man who had dedicated “his whole life for one idea, and who defended this idea until it triumphed. That should be accomplishment enough for one man, when the cause for which he devoted his life and his soul is that of justice.”[5]


Clemenceau was not yet 27 years of age when he published this final tribute. Yet in my view, Stevens’s example inspired him for the rest of his life. In suddenly rising to fame in the Dreyfus Affair, Clemenceau did not use J’Accuse as a convenient vehicle for gaining political power in the ordinary politics of the Third Republic. Instead, like Stevens, he served as an eloquent spokesman for his own ideals and waited for decades until his fellow-citizens were prepared to follow him. Even more remarkably, he did not cling to power, like an ordinary politician, by wheeling and dealing with his coalition partners. Instead, he quit twice rather than compromise his principles.


In saying this, I don’t suggest that I find Clemenceau’s principles as admirable as those of Stevens. To be sure, his courageous denunciations of anti-Semitism, colonialism, as well as his outstanding defense of freedom of conscience continue to serve as an inspiration in the twenty-first century. But what appeared as a principled opposition to Germany, both before and after World War I, set the stage for an even more tragic bloodbath a quarter century later. Nevertheless, would the seventy-eight-year-old Clemenceau have endorsed the punitive Treaty of Versailles if he had never encountered Stevens as a twenty-two-year-old?


The question suggests that I should add a personal dimension to my ongoing contrast between Clemenceau and Tocqueville. Recall that it was Tocqueville’s bitter disappointment with French politics that drove him to America to find a solution to the problem of democracy that led nowhere in France. But in the case of Clemenceau, it was a confrontation with American democracy, and his hero Stevens, that led him to adopt the politics of principle that has had such an impact in shaping the course of French democracy.


As I write these lines, America is once again in desperate need of a Stevens or a Clemenceau or a Martin Luther King. It is only such men and women who will stand up the authoritarian pretensions of President Trump, and lead twenty-first-century Americans forward a renewed commitment to democracy and social justice. I appeal to my friends across the Atlantic for all the help they can give us.


[1] I provide a blow-by-blow account of these intense electoral struggles in The Failure of the Founding Fathers (Harvard University Press: 2005).

[2] See Bruce Ackerman, We the People: Transformations pp. 136-137 (Harvard University Press: 1998).

[3] For my own effort, which cites many others, see Bruce Ackerman, We the People: Transformations, pp. 99-252 (Harvard University Press: 1998).

[4] Essay of October 7, 1867: p125 (Baldensperger ed. 1969).

[5] Letter of August 13, 1869, p. 194 (Baldensperger ed. 1969).


Image credit credit: Musée national Clemenceau-de-Lattre (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons; Théodore Chassériau (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons


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