'Alexis de Tocqueville': the first French critic of the US

The French scholar went to America in pursuit of better ideas for his own country.

The 18th and 19th centuries were a tumultuous time in Europe. France, in particular, was looking to find its feet after its revolution, which had wiped out a considerable part of its nobility.

Under these circumstances, it was but natural that scholars of the age looked outward for better forms of governance. Among these, the name of French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville must reign supreme. After a brief visit to America in 1831, he came to write the definitive book on American democracy and many of his insights remain relevant to this day.

And yet, for almost two centuries, there has been no comprehensive English-language biography of Tocqueville. That gap is now filled by Hugh Brogan's absorbing, exhaustive Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life.

Brogan, a British historian and biographer, seems to alternate throughout the biography between idealized and sharply critical views of Tocqueville.

It was the turmoil in French government, Brogan points out, that brought Tocqueville to America. The July Revolution of 1830, which led to the accession to the throne of Louise-Philippe, left Tocqueville, who had studied law, in a state of crisis. His father lost his position, his own career lost its momentum, and the very foundation of European nobility – Tocqueville's milieu – became precarious.

And so, on the pretext of studying prison reform in the United States (which at the time was considered to have the best penal system in the world), Tocqueville and close friend Gustave Beaumont took leave of France.

On his arrival to America, the fact of American democracy's success was nothing less than a shock to Tocqueville. Although he was born in 1805 – 16 years after the storming of the Bastille – Tocqueville's aristocratic family suffered greatly from the excesses of the French revolution. His grandfather and other family members and friends were guillotined and their grounds and property were confiscated.

Not surprisingly, young Tocqueville was left with a deep fear of the "tyranny" of majority rule. But once in the United States and able to observe the new nation close-up, he was forced to concede that a system of government founded on equality – the kind that Europe had never experienced – seemed to work.

Tocqueville was an admirer of local self-government and decentralization, and Brogan writes warmly of this admiration. He also devotes considerable space to Tocqueville's notes on prison reform. But Brogan's greatest interest is in Tocqueville's rather contentious relationship with democracy itself, as evidenced in his seminal work, "Democracy in America."

"Tocqueville," Brogan complains, "keeps switching from the pros to the cons [of democracy] and back again and thereby disconcerts his readers, because he states every point so emphatically and never tries to harmonize his discourse."

Ironically, the same can be said for Brogan's treatment of Tocqueville. At one moment, he is the undisputed prophet of democracy; at another, a self-doubting, formulaic scholar. In Brogan's view, Tocqueville's longevity in political discourse may have as much to do with his literary leanings and ease with language as with the workings of a real intellect.

He accuses Tocqueville of using "literary guile" to make his thoughts acceptable. He decries the comparison between democracy and aristocracy that Tocqueville makes, lamenting, "It is a great pity that Tocqueville was not prepared to use the word 'oligarchy' systematically."

Equally jarring to Brogan is Tocqueville's failure to discuss women's rights, which John Stuart Mill did to such resounding effect.

Along with this thorough tracking of Tocqueville's intellectual development, Brogan also offers a close analysis of his personal life.

He traces the lifelong friendship with Beaumont, quoting generously from letters they wrote to one another. He also provides insight into Tocqueville's marriage to Englishwoman Marie Motley, a relationship strained both by their different backgrounds and Tocqueville's philandering, although Brogan makes clear that there was always deep affection.

And then there was Tocqueville's devotion to his beloved France. Much of Tocqueville's life was aimed at discovering a form of government that could reclaim past French glories. Brogan's biography is a marvelous tribute to that life.

Vikram Johri is a freelance writer in New Delhi.

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