Motivation of a Masterpiece

Why did Alexis de Tocqueville write Democracy in America? Lucien Jaume’s excellent work of scholarship helps elucidate the answer by investigating the man

Books History
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.”

In political terms this meant that there was no point lamenting the loss of a bygone age of aristocracy and aristocratic values. Democracy was on the march and the best that could be hoped for was that it would conduct itself wisely. But it also meant that Tocqueville’s liberalism was to remain unambiguously anti-bourgeois and that he was to retain a fear of the unruly masses. 

Jaume therefore reads Democracy in America as a text that “bristles with contradictory voices”. Legitimists, counter-revolutionaries, liberal aristocrats, republicans, followers of the so-called doctrinaires, not to mention Tocqueville’s staunchly monarchist family and friends, jostle for position in a “hidden dialogue”. Consciously or not, Jaume tells us, Tocqueville saw America through the eyes of his illustrious uncle, François — René de Chateaubriand. Both favoured liberty while rejecting the power of money: both came to believe in God’s presence in history. By contrast, Tocqueville’s writing style was shaped by the moralists of the French 17th century. From this flowed his desire to resist a use of language that mirrored the confusion prevailing in democratic society. 

Most intriguing of all is Jaume’s examination of Tocqueville’s relation to Pascal and the broader tradition of Jansenism. What emerges is a picture of a man drawn by temperament and philosophical outlook to Jansenism’s tragic vision of human finitude and the duality of soul and body. What Pascal portrayed as characteristic of the human condition, Jaume argues, was transposed by Tocqueville into a description of democratic society condemned to permanent agitation and restless anxiety. Like man himself, democracy cannot perceive its own good and is drawn fatally to the pursuit of material pleasures.

It was Pascal’s Jansenist vision that Tocqueville deployed to highlight the unease and dissatisfaction at the heart of democratic society. The Pensées tell us that, as soon as we try to moor ourselves to a fixed point, it flees in eternal flight, the abyss reappearing beneath our feet. In a democracy, Tocqueville contends, that fixed point is seen as a condition of equality. However, no sooner does equality appear to be within our grasp than it too eludes us, the desire for equality only becoming more insatiable as we see it hovering in the near-distance. The more equal we are, the more the slightest inequality offends us.

Herein lies democracy’s greatest peril. Democratic man would give up liberty in favour of equality and the promise of material plenty. Here too, according to Jaume, are found “the two great ideas that animated all of Tocqueville’s thought”: the resurgence of despotism and the advent of equality. And it is precisely the prominence given to these two themes by Tocqueville that explains why we still read Democracy in America and why we do so with such profit. Tocqueville, with greater clarity than anyone before him, saw that the equality of conditions typical of democratic society could give rise to a new form of despotism. 

Tocqueville also saw that America had contrived ways to counter these tendencies: religion and the family as checks upon individualism; administrative decentralisation and the separation of powers: “self-interest properly understood”. All served to maintain a flourishing local life and thus to preserve liberty. 

Of course, Tocqueville did not intend that America should be seen as a model to be copied slavishly. Nor, Jaume concludes, did Tocqueville need to observe the vitality of the New England townships to appreciate the dangers of centralisation. As an aristocratic liberal, family tradition alone would have taught him how an absolutist monarchy could suck the life out of a country.

Why then did Tocqueville write Democracy in America? No clearer answer is to be found than in a letter written by Tocqueville to Silvestre de Sacy in 1840, usefully printed as an appendix to this volume. It reads as follows: “My purpose in writing [my] book was to reveal the frightening prospects in store for our contemporaries . . . To show . . . that in order to prevent this equality, which we rightly hold dear, from becoming the leprosy of the human race, one must work tirelessly to sustain the flight of ideas, to lift souls toward — and — to show that in the democratic age that is just beginning, political liberty is not only beautiful but also necessary for nations to become great and even to remain civilised.”

Lucien Jaume’s impeccable scholarship helps us better to understand how Tocqueville attained this goal.