Alexis de Tocqueville: An aristocrat at odds with the beliefs of his royalist milieu
There were many books written about America by Europeans in the 19th century. But one book above all continues to command our attention: Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published as two volumes in 1835 and 1840. On both sides of the Atlantic it was immediately received as a masterpiece and this has largely remained the case to this day.
Yet, as Lucien Jaume observes, this is perplexing, as little of the content of Democracy in America was original to its author. "All the themes that Tocqueville developed," Jaume writes, "were being debated, and had already been debated, at the time he published his book." In particular, Tocqueville's contemporaries shared a passionate interest in the nature and future of democracy; and all observers agreed that here was a subject on which America had much to teach the old world. In short, Tocqueville reworked ideas that were long familiar, without adding anything that was truly new.
Why then did Tocqueville write Democracy in America? How deeply did Tocqueville share the preoccupations of his time? How, in turn, should we read Tocqueville's text?
According to Jaume, to answer these questions we have to understand something about Tocqueville the man. Tocqueville was imbued with the culture of the French aristocracy but he was also a young aristocrat in conflict with the beliefs of his milieu. Thus, in Jaume's phrase, if Tocqueville became a democrat by reason, he always remained an aristocrat by emotion. This, for example, is how Tocqueville described himself not long after he had set foot on American soil: "Tied to the royalists by shared principles and a thousand family connections, I see myself as somehow chained to a party whose conduct strikes me as often not very honourable and nearly always extravagant."