Tocqueville Skewered His Contemporaries With a Sharp Pen

Olivier Zunz
January 05, 2017

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer, political theorist and politician, has helped Americans see themselves since 1835.

Tocqueville, most famous in the United States for his two-volume tome, “Democracy in America,” had an extensive career in France – one that is coming more to light in the United States through a new translation of “Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and its Aftermath,” published this fall by the University of Virginia Press. The work was translated by Arthur Goldhammer and edited by UVA Commonwealth Professor of History Olivier Zunz, who also wrote the introduction.

“Recollections” is a personal reflection Tocqueville, who died in 1859, did not intend for publication in his lifetime. An expurgated version was published in 1893, and it was only in 1942 that a complete text was made available. It contained “uncompromising judgments” and “unforgettable portraits,” in the words of its editor. “In ‘Recollections’ everybody, regardless of political persuasion, is named and undressed at every turn,” Zunz wrote in the introduction.

Tocqueville, who saw socialism as an obstacle to individual liberty, has enjoyed sustained popularity in the U.S. He came to the United States in 1831 with Gustave de Beaumont to investigate prison reform, and he and Beaumont talked with more than 200 people on politics, law and social practices in America. They traveled extensively around the country for nine months as Tocqueville gathered material, eventually leading to “Democracy in America.”

“Tocqueville was less read in the Depression years, when Marxism gained a foothold among intellectuals in the U.S., except by conservatives who fought the New Deal,” Zunz said. “In the Cold War, Tocqueville was prominent because U.S. civil society/volunteerism provided an alternative to state socialism in the dualistic world view. In the post-Cold War world, Tocqueville was all the rage.”

A politician himself, Tocqueville understood the rough-and-tumble of the game, much the same now as in his day.

“Tocqueville thought that politics was more important than political philosophy, although he was better suited for the latter,” Zunz said. “Tocqueville ran for re-election to the National Assembly in France’s first male universal suffrage contest after the Revolution of 1848. He campaigned on the stump in his native Normandy, only to describe the political battle: ‘All the petty vexations and calumnies and war of chamber pots that go with any election plunge me into dark ennui.’ How appropriate an image for what we just lived through.” 

Tocqueville started writing “Recollections” in 1850 while at his family chateau in Normandy, recovering from his first bout with the pulmonary tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. While his health had always been frail, Tocqueville had reached the point where he had to request a leave of absence from the National Assembly. He started committing his memories to paper, lest they be lost.

“He had become ‘barely able to observe life as a spectator’ and was despondent about the future of his country – he was nearly certain that the Republic was about to collapse – as well as his own prospects,” Zunz wrote in the introduction.

While his time in the National Assembly had found him working on some important issues, such as prison reform, the abolition of slavery and the colonization of Algeria, he felt he had not advanced his “life’s passion” of political liberty. He was disgusted with his colleagues for fighting petty disputes over personal gains and for their lack of respect for civil liberties. He poured that into his writings.

“He is very trenchant and some of the portraits are very acid portraits,” Zunz said. “But it has some wonderful descriptions of political life and what it entails.”

“Recollections” is the third Tocqueville translation on which Zunz and Goldhammer have worked, the first being a new translation of “Democracy in America” for the Library of America in 2004 and then the massive “Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America: Their Friendship and Their Travels,” which was also published in 2011 by the University of Virginia Press.

The latter volume is “a complete report of the travel in the United States from 1831 and 1832,” Zunz said. “This is almost a complete transcription of Tocqueville’s travel notebooks and his letters home to family and friends, as well as Beaumont’s notes. Beaumont was Tocqueville’s travel companion, they were colleagues in the courthouse in Versailles, before they left. Tocqueville was only 25 years old at the time he visited America in 1831. He turned 26 on July 29, in the Michigan forest.”

Young Tocqueville came to explore this country following the revolution that deposed French King Charles X and created a monarchy under King Louis-Philippe.

“It was just after the revolution in France of 1830 and he wanted to have a break from it,” Zunz said. “He wasn’t sure if he could support the constitutional monarchy. He came from a family that had been completely decimated by the Revolutionary Terror of 1793-94. His great-grandfather, his grandparents, most of his uncles and aunts were guillotined.”

America, with its way of life and way of politics, made quite an impression on Tocqueville.

“In a democracy, Tocqueville argued, people found true greatness not in crowning achievements that benefited only a few [as in aristocratic societies], but in progress for most,” Zunz wrote in his introduction to “Democracy in America.” “In Alexis de Tocqueville’s own words, ‘Equality [read democracy] is less lofty perhaps, but more just, and its justice is the source of its grandeur and beauty.’”

The America that Tocqueville found was very different from the France in which he lived.

“He was discovering America from a monarchist’s background,” Zunz said of Tocqueville. “He was not supposed to like a republic or democracy, but he did. So to him it turns out to be very much a trip to figure out his own future. ‘What is a democracy like? What do they do over there?’ and he figured it out so well he helped Americans understand themselves.”

Zunz has had a long fascination with Tocqueville, in part because of their shared mission. Both are French and both try to understand America. Zunz, as a historian of America, has written “Philanthropy in America: A History,” “Why the American Century?” “Making America Corporate, 1870-1920,” and “The Changing Face of Inequality.” Zunz frequently cites Tocqueville, whom he regards as something of a lifelong companion.

“I began with Tocqueville when I was a graduate student,” Zunz said. “My mentor in France was a great historian of the French Revolution and a great Tocqueville scholar and he taught me about Tocqueville when I was young. And Tocqueville has been a companion, almost a friend, because his letters are so extraordinary. He is somebody who, in his writing, is sharing his doubts and his emotions with you.”

Zunz, along with the late Theodore Caplow, a UVA sociology professor, founded the Tocqueville Society, which publishes “The Tocqueville Review.”

“Initially the review was supposed to be about comparative social science and history, mostly France and America,” Zunz said. “I helped create it and became president of the Tocqueville Society, and as this little organization grew, it also became a forum for Tocqueville scholarship.”

Zunz said that most of Tocqueville’s work has been published in French – 32 volumes of observations, letters and profiles – and Zunz is now at work on a biography of Tocqueville, in an effort to capture the essence of the man.

“There is an American Tocqueville, who wrote ‘Democracy in America,’ the Tocqueville who helped Americans figure out who they were,” Zunz said. “There is a French Tocqueville, with a book on the French Revolution. The two discourses only partly overlap. And one of the tasks I want to do in writing his biography is to bridge them. I think I am in a unique position to do so.”

Zunz feels he knows Tocqueville and understands him.

“Tocqueville was not only a political philosopher or a historian or an intellectual – he was also a politician,” Zunz said. “To my mind, he is the person who embodies best the major shift from the aristocracy in the 18th century to modern democracy.”

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