Still the Brightest Mirror


Tocqueville: A Biography, by André Jardin, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 550 pages, $35

The French, who practically invented the superfluous intellectual during the Enlightenment, also gave us Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America is still unsurpassed as a mirror on the political intentions of the founding and on political circumstances today. Although far less obscure than Montesquieu, whom Tocqueville took as a model, Tocqueville has remained subject to endless interpretation and revision. Yet, while the articles and books about his thought could fill a modest library, few are the works about the whole of Tocqueville's life.

This is so chiefly because Tocqueville is a difficult person to write about. His letters and papers yield little information about his private life, and his political career, with one brief exception, failed to advance to the point where he played a role in vital political events such that he would have been recorded prominently in the memoirs of his contemporaries. He lives on through the medium of his intellectual output, with only scant material available to suggest events and influences that shaped his "new science of politics."

Still, there is a good deal more to Tocqueville than just his Democracy in America, and André Jardin's biography deserves a wide readership among those who would seek a more complete understanding of Tocqueville. From Jardin one learns many details of interest. Tocqueville was a descendant of Malesherbes, the indulgent chief censor of the French government during the heyday of the Enlightenment, and Tocqueville's aristocratic forebears were largely unaffected by the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. His family, in fact, felt some sympathy for the liberal aims of the Revolution, which perhaps helps explain why Tocqueville's Old Regime and the French Revolution sounds not at all like Edmund Burke's frantic Reflections—a fact that might give pause to conservatives who hold Tocqueville in high esteem.

Throughout his life Tocqueville was transfixed by what he saw as the inevitable historical transition from aristocratic politics to democratic politics. He was naturally fascinated with America, although he understood that what made the American Revolution unique was the absence of any feudal tradition to overcome.

Tocqueville's visit to America in 1831–32 was part official junket and part political exile. The upheaval in France in 1830 clouded his career prospects—he was at the time a mid-level civil servant. The ideal time was at hand to satisfy his fascination with America, while allowing things to settle down in France. Tocqueville and his traveling companion in America, Gustave de Beaumont, hit upon a professional excuse for the trip: to study the American penal system, which then enjoyed a very low rate of recidivism.

At the time Tocqueville went to America he did not harbor prejudgments in favor of American democracy. Indeed, the events in France had cast him into one of his frequent bouts of melancholy, such that, Jardin tells us, Tocqueville wondered whether America was a model for the future or somehow a scene from the past. In a letter Jardin cites, Tocqueville described his transformation: "I went to America only to clarify my thoughts on these matters. The penitentiary system was an excuse; I used it as a passport that would allow me to go everywhere in the United States. In that country, where I encountered a thousand things I didn't expect, I also found some that were related to the questions I had so often asked myself. I discovered facts that seemed useful to know. I didn't go there with the idea of writing a book at all, but the idea of the book came to me. I said to myself that a man is under the same obligation to offer up his mind in the service of society as he is, in time of war, his body." Voila, as the French would say.

America was not the end of Tocqueville's study of things foreign. He traveled to Algeria and wrote critically about French colonial administration. He also studied the Koran and rendered judgments that might prove dangerous today. "There have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Mohammed.…it is the principal cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world." As a way of exploring how a colonial administration of a foreign culture could work, Tocqueville planned a book on the British in India, but he abandoned the project ostensibly because he wished to spare France the embarrassment of unfavorable comparison with England.

Interspersed throughout Jardin's narrative are otherwise inaccessible citations from notebooks and letters that amplify the great Tocquevillian themes about equality, government centralization, and religion. Readers of Democracy in America will remember the warning about intrusive government that "chooses to be the sole agent of (the people's) happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and the trouble of living?"

Circumstances in America were opposite of this at the time of Tocqueville's visit, a fact he recorded during his trip in a note reproduced by Jardin: "One of the happiest consequences of the absence of government…is the development of individual strength that inevitably follows it. Each man learns to think, to act by himself, without counting on the support of an outside force, which however vigilant he supposes it to be, can never answer all his social needs. Man, thus accustomed to seeking his own well-being only through his own efforts, raises himself in his own opinion as he does in the opinion of others; his soul becomes larger and stronger at the same time."

These two statements indicate why we still read Tocqueville closely today, even as other French intellectuals like Diderot and D'Alembert have become mere curiosities. For it is more than his aphoristic prose or his jeremiads about bureaucracy that makes Tocqueville live on. Tocqueville combined a rare understanding of both the new principles of democracy and the mostly ennobling effects democracy would have on the great mass of men, and the subtle corruptions to which democratic politics are susceptible. It is because modern democracy has largely succumbed to these corruptions that Tocqueville's wisdom is a vital means toward recovering our fundamental bearings. Andre Jardin has enhanced this project by enlarging our view of this great man.

Steven Hayward is director of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Project.