Tocqueville and His America

Tocqueville and His America: A Darker Horizon

Arthur Kaledin
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Tocqueville and His America
    Book Description:

    Arthur Kaledin's groundbreaking book on Alexis de Tocqueville offers an original combination of biography, character study, and wide-ranging analysis of Tocqueville'sDemocracy in America, bringing new light to that classic work. The author examines the relation between Tocqueville's complicated inner life, his self-imagination, and his moral thought, and the meaning of his enduring writings, leading to a new understanding of Tocqueville's view of democratic culture and democratic politics. With particular emphasis on Tocqueville's prescient anticipation of various threats to liberty, social unity, and truly democratic politics in America posed by aspects of democratic culture, Kaledin underscores the continuing pertinence of Tocqueville's thought in our own changing world of the twenty-first century.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17620-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xxvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
  5. Introduction: A Brief Life of Alexis de Tocqueville
    (pp. xxix-xxxvi)

    Alexis de Tocqueville’s family, on both sides from the old French nobility, was shattered by the Revolution of 1789. Some, among them his mother’s parents, her sister and brother-in-law, and her illustrious grandfather Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, had been executed during the Terror of 1793–94. Some had been driven into exile or had sought rural sanctuary. Many had been traumatized; while imprisoned in the Conciergerie in 1794, his father, Hervé Tocqueville, then twenty-two, had turned white-haired; and his mother, Louise, also twenty-two, fell into the melancholy that eventually submerged her completely. They had barely avoided the guillotine thanks...

    • 1 Identity in a Time of Historical Transition
      (pp. 3-10)

      Alexis de Tocqueville liked to describe himself as a man above parties, politics, and prejudice, committed neither to the vanishing old order of things nor to the emerging new one, neither to aristocracy nor to democracy. He was, he said, an impartial, objective analyst seeking only to understand the inexorable drift of history and to provide moral guidance to democracy, which without doubt owned the future. He was not a democrat but bowed before its inevitability and sought to instruct it. His only passion was “the love of liberty and of human dignity.”

      In a long letter of 1837 to...

    • 2 Class: Between Two Worlds
      (pp. 11-36)

      If there is illusion in Tocqueville’s self-imagination as a man above it all, there is some truth to it as well. With regard to that fundamental context of selfdefinition, class, he was detached not only from the middle classes, for the culture of which he felt deep repugnance, but also in some ways from his own class, which he persistently thought of as historically dead and no longer consequential in the life of France. His critical intellect distanced him from all classes, communities, and groups. He was self-consciously a man apart, a man whose social identity and social place were...

    • 3 Intimacy
      (pp. 37-50)

      The terminal irony of Tocqueville’s comment to Kergorlay-“what we would have called our class” illuminates the fact that his relationship to the aristocracy was too laced with ambiguities to offer him a secure sense of community. He was a man of class feelings without a class. He had to look elsewhere for his true community, which he found in a society of friendship based on a shared moral sensibility and on shared goals, more the sensibility than the goals. Like other moralists alienated to a degree from their society and culture, Tocqueville dreamed of forming “alongside the great society, a...

    • 4 Ambition
      (pp. 51-58)

      The “défiance de moi-même,” the troubled and complicated sense of self which was a lifelong distracting interest for Tocqueville, remains at variance with his self-portrait as an individual serenely poised above history, class, and party, rationally in possession of himself. Tocqueville was in fact a restless, dissatisfied individual who lived in an almost unremitting state of interior agitation and self-doubt. He never felt fully composed or at ease in anything he undertook in any social milieu or in any vocation. His was not simply a case of the social and self-alienation customarily experienced by any critical consciousness. His “vie errant...

    • 5 Melancholy
      (pp. 59-62)

      Though Tocqueville was capable of seeing himself as a redemptive figure leading France to restored glory, his self-imagination was often suffused with a sense of marginality and impotence. Despite his openly critical detachment from the romantic movement, the sense of self he conveys is ironically a nearly perfect illustration of the romantic sensibility. Tocqueville seemed created for a leading role in the spiritual melodrama of romanticism: his vision of himself resonates with some of the deepest cultural impulses of his time. His confessional self-portrait curiously resembles the archetypal spiritually wounded, withdrawn romantic hero, burning himself out in a dark world...

    • 6 Skeptical Romantic
      (pp. 63-65)

      Tocqueville’s emphasis on passion and heart, his tendency to invest freedom with redemptive powers, his admiration of daring and greatness of spirit and his disdain for bourgeois prudence, his longing for a life of heroic action, his praise of self-sacrifice in the pursuit of noble goals, his desire to reintegrate knowledge, religion, and morality and to reunite past and present, his celebration of the striving individual ready to stand alone against society to fulfill his vision, and his constant lament about the growth of uniformity in the modern world-all are deeply rooted in his temperament. These complex visions are central...

    • 7 Skeptical Philosophe
      (pp. 66-71)

      As he sat at his desk writing, Tocqueville could look up and see a bust of Malesherbes, his illustrious eighteenth-century ancestor, his maternal greatgrandfather, whose peculiar distinction it was to have been a defender of both the philosophes and Louis XVI. It was not simply a gesture of ancestral pride and piety that made Tocqueville look to Malesherbes more than anyone as a moral hero of the eighteenth century. A symbol of Tocqueville’s own complicated relationship to the Enlightenment, Malesherbes was a supporter both of free inquiry and the scientific study of humanity and society and also of the “wisdom...

    • 8 Skepticism and Religion: “Une Ombre Vaine”
      (pp. 72-78)

      Tocqueville’s struggle with the materialist and skeptical implications of Enlightenment thought was pitched most fiercely on the level of personal faith. His restless analytic consciousness and imperious intellectuality dissolved all certainties for him. After his birthright Catholicism was undermined by his early encounter with the philosophes, he spent the rest of his life searching for belief without resorting to the intellectually unacceptable strategies of dogma, mysticism, or sentimentalism. Doubt, however, was to remain a permanent plague for him. He had lost not only his Catholic faith but also the dream of certitude. He had early discovered-“it was the unhappiest time...

    • 9 Doubt and the Will to Believe
      (pp. 79-82)

      The problem of belief and the difficult relationship of knowledge, value, and action absorbed Tocqueville almost as much as the issues of political and social order and of personal and public morale on which his writing focused directly. InDemocracy in Americahe occasionally turns his critical attention to the problem of knowledge itself. On perhaps its profoundest levelDemocracy in Americais shaped by Tocqueville’s continuing debate about the problem of belief and knowledge as well as about the Enlightenment doctrines of progress and happiness. To understand Tocqueville’s personal struggle against skepticism and doubt, which oppressed him throughout his...

    • 10 Exile: Voiceless in Cannes
      (pp. 83-100)

      Tocqueville’s “beau rêve” ended in nightmare. His political career and his dreams came to an abrupt end with Louis Napoleon’s coup of December 2, 1851, and he spent the rest of his life in a kind of haunted internal exile in his own country, trying to nourish occasional flickering hopes for the future, slipping into an ever-deeper sense of isolation. It was a cruel and painful fate for someone who had so identified his own purposes with the life of his country-in itself an immense irony considering the deep alienation he felt. He now found himself an outlaw, as he...

    • 1 Vocation: Politics as Calling—Tocqueville’s “Beau Rêve”
      (pp. 103-113)

      The ambitious Tocqueville was not about to accept Royer-Collard’s counsel that because the time was not right he should delay entering politics. It would be some time before he realized that his true vocation was not political but literary. He saw himself as a disinterested leader of a lost and confused people-as a servant of humanity. If he admitted that he also craved success, he seems not to have understood that he also thirsted for power. When, after Tocqueville’s death, François Guizot was asked if he could explain the various contradictions of Tocqueville’s political life, for example, his tendency to...

    • 2 Vocation: The Responsibilities of Political Leaders
      (pp. 114-122)

      If the central problems of democratic politics were essentially moral and cultural, what then was to be done? What prescriptions did Tocqueville’s “new science of politics for a new age” offer to guide democracies through the perils they would inevitably face? His ideas often sound like the stoical musings of someone dealt a crippling blow by fate yet determined to make the best of it. The true task of political leadership was to restore soul to politics: to reinvest political life with a level of moral consciousness and with values that democratic culture would chronically undercut. Such was the calling...

    • 3 The Dead Sea of Politics
      (pp. 123-136)

      The Tocqueville who paid no heed to Royer-Collard’s advice to stay out of the political arena, who ran unsuccessfully for political office in 1837, and who was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839 was a more complex, realistic, and craftier figure than his ideal self-portrait suggests. Though he was politically inexperienced and naïve (on entering the Chamber in 1839 he had indeed been duped, as Royer feared he might be), he could be shrewd about the game of politics and knew how much success was a matter of image management. He was in fact independent but he also...

    • 4 Tocqueville’s Aristocratic Liberalism
      (pp. 137-148)

      What did Tocqueville have in mind when he called for a moderate, progressive, nonrevolutionary liberalism? He came to the Chamber of Deputies with no agenda of social reform. Despite Beaumont’s belief that his friend did not fit the role of opposition, Tocqueville’s politics were often countervailing. They recall his remark inDemocracy in Americathat “the essence of the Lawgiver’s art” is to know that “different times make different demands.”¹ His position on all attempts to constrain or curtail freedom, whether of assembly, speech, or education, was almost always libertarian. He generally favored gradual extension of suffrage, to be accomplished...

    • 1 A Moral Landscape
      (pp. 151-156)

      Tocqueville beginsDemocracy in Americawith a brief chapter innocently titled “The Physical Configuration of North America.” But that title, like the matter-of-fact précis that heads the chapter, is deceptive. The reader does not encounter a straightforward geography, an inventory of resources, or even a rough ethnographic map. Instead, the reader immediately steps into a distorted and foreshortened landscape, rather like those old comic lopsided maps that reveal more about the strange consciousness of the parochial Bostonian than about the world as it really is. It is a landscape that says a good deal about Tocqueville and the forces of...

    • 2 A Moral History
      (pp. 157-161)

      Even before he unfolds the moral topography of his America, Tocqueville provides, in the introduction toDemocracy in America, yet another immense context for what was ostensibly to be a book intended to tell the French what a fully developed egalitarian society was like and thereby to cast light on the democratic future. Yet what could his readers have thought they were about to read once they had finished the introduction, which opens with Tocqueville’s breathless sketch of what he calls the providential design for “the Christian world”-the inexorable rise of democracy-and then goes on to deliver a long, impassioned...

    • 3 Escape
      (pp. 162-167)

      If his vision of broken time in the introduction toDemocracy in Americaand the fantasy topography of its first chapter clarify Tocqueville’s larger purposes, one should also be able to gain some insight into the origins and intentions of his book and its long, winding, complex argument by considering its genesis, his experience in writing it, and how he struggled to bring focus to his aims and ideas while it was in gestation and by considering as well his general ideas about writing, about literature, and about the writing of history.

      It is a curious, unremarked irony that while...

    • 4 The New World: Fable, Romance, History
      (pp. 168-173)

      For many reasons it is understandable that Tocqueville turned to America to escape the prison France had become for him. For the French, America had always been more than a developing nation that might be exploited economically and geopolitically. The green Republic across the Atlantic was also a symbol resonant with all the dreams and aspirations of Enlightenment and revolutionary Europe and had long stirred the French imagination.¹ Even before the discovery of the New World during the Renaissance, the European imagination had been full of fantasies of an Eden or a Paradise to the West.² It was not the...

    • 5 Tocqueville in the Wilderness
      (pp. 174-188)

      Tocqueville made three simultaneous journeys to America: one to examine the American prison system, the official expedition for which he was supplied with governmental sanction and a satchel full of letters of introduction; a second to study democracy in its most advanced development; and a third consisting of spontaneous adventures, journeys within the journey, in which he was most deeply responding to his personal emotional agenda. There are several striking aspects to these improvised trips: they were undertaken suddenly, on impulse, or, as Tocqueville put it, they were “non premedité”; they both involved deep excursions into the wilderness; and he...

    • 6 Transformations
      (pp. 189-197)

      While the dynamics of imagination of Tocqueville’s story are complex, two transformations seem especially significant, and these are related to the major questions that shape all ofDemocracy in America. “Quinze Jours au Désert,” written aboard a steamboat as he headed west after his Michigan adventure, is his fullest account of his wilderness experience. It can be read, in fact, as a preliminary working out, a kind of thematic prefiguring, at least on the level of poetic imagination, of some of the main historical and philosophical issues that informDemocracy in America. The first of these shifts involves a remythicizing...

    • 7 Beginning Democracy in America
      (pp. 198-207)

      The idea forDemocracy in America(henceforth I refer to the two volumes asDA IandDA II) took shape slowly in Tocqueville’s mind, and the book itself developed even more slowly as he wrote it. From a certain point of view one can say that it was only when he was revisingDA II, in 1839, that he finally understood the full scope and all the objectives of his work. So his correspondence makes clear. The creation ofDemocracy in Americainvolved another long exploration not only of democratic culture and politics in America but also of the...

    • 8 Influences: Voices in the Tower
      (pp. 208-235)

      As Tocqueville slipped deeper into deliberate self-isolation and into the world of his imagination, he continued to rely more than ever on a small group of intimate friends for information, criticism, and encouragement and for the kind of dialogue he needed to clarify his ideas. He carried them with him, as it were, into his intellectual solitude. They served as intermediaries between Tocqueville and the world. Of all those he depended on for stimulation and mediation, Beaumont, Kergorlay, and Ampère were especially important. He also listened to and debated with the more distant voices of Mill and Royer-Collard. They too...

    • 9 Writing as Moral Act
      (pp. 236-252)

      Tocqueville constantly encountered the major writers of France’s romantic literary renaissance, most of whom circulated through the same salons he attended. Some of them, including Hugo, Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, Charles Sainte-Beuve, Prosper Merimée, Ampère, and others, as well as many historians, were also members of the Académie française, which during Tocqueville’s time as a member was also full of many now obscure poets.

      He could not have been much at ease in the realm of the literary salon. Ambition for repute drove him to attend them, not the pleasures of serious conversation, which he seems to have found mainly...

    • 10 History as Moral Drama
      (pp. 253-272)

      Tocqueville was not a historian. He was not trained as a historian and did not think of himself as one. Not until he turned, in the 1850s, to the great subject of the French Revolution and its tumultuous aftermath did he begin serious, methodical historical research in sources. It was only while preparing to writeL’Ancien Régime et la révolutionthat he became engrossed in the central historiographical problems of representativeness, quantitative adequacy, the value and hazards of primary sources, and the problematic usefulness of memoirs. He calledDemocracy in Americanot a history, but “un ouvrage philosophico politique.” Nevertheless,...

    • 11 The Birth of a Book
      (pp. 273-276)

      The second volume ofDemocracy in Americaproved especially difficult and unsettling. The problem was not simply the pressure of other commitments: especially local political life and his responsibilities in the Chamber of Deputies, to which he was elected in 1839, and also his wavering health. The book had become intrinsically more complex. He had embarked on an exploration for which no one had cut a trail, and too often for his fragile confidence he would lose his way and bog down in uncertainty. He put it as follows: “In the first part of my work I focused on the...

    • 1 Tocqueville’s American Notebooks and Democracy in America
      (pp. 279-287)

      Tocqueville was not the first Frenchman to journey to America in search of the future, and a long file of his countrymen has followed in his footsteps. Yet he was, and still is, the most insightful and influential of them all, principally because he raised questions about democracy that are enduringly meaningful and also began to develop a view of democratic culture rich with insights that continue to illuminate where the country is now. How he shaped that view and how he achieved those insights are questions I examine in this book. The fruit of his journey,Democracy in America,...

    • 2 Traveling Through the New Republic with Tocqueville and Beaumont
      (pp. 288-298)

      As Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled through the United States Tocqueville began to see a quality in the American spirit that deeply troubled him and that was a quietly abiding specter in all that he later wrote about American life and culture: a coldness and implacability, a powerful acquisitiveness, a ruthlessness toward nature, a fierce competitiveness, a cruel racism, and a heartlessness about the lives of the different, that is, native Americans and Africans-traits that, in combination with the deeply rooted messianic assumptions of American self-understanding, whether religious or secular, could become an awesome engine of violence.²

      All this is much...

    • 3 Democratic Religion: Mad Messiahs and Chaste Women
      (pp. 299-312)

      Of all that is perhaps best known about Tocqueville’s view of democratic America, perhaps the foremost, especially these days when the ideology of faithbased politics is much heard in the United States, is his assertion that democracy and liberty cannot survive without the support of religion. However, by the end ofDemocracy in Americahe had quietly raised so many doubts about the quality of religion in a democratic culture and so thoroughly pointed out its weaknesses that he seemed to have abandoned the argument that it would be an effective guardian of liberty. InDemocracyhe sees religion in...

    • 4 Class in an Egalitarian Society
      (pp. 313-320)

      At first glance, the brave new egalitarian world of democratic America must have struck Tocqueville as a utopian fulfillment of the eighteenth-century dream of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. He obviously was fascinated and overwhelmed by what at first appeared to be the complete triumph of equality in American life. In his notebooks he jotted down example upon example of the ways in which the passion for equality had transformed every aspect of social life.

      He was astonished to have found a society that “seems to have turned into one middle class.” Middle-class manners and style of life prevailed. The old...

    • 5 Born-Again America: The Creation of an American Identity
      (pp. 321-334)

      Tocqueville’s journey to America was more than a fact-gathering mission and a search for the soul of democracy. It was also an intellectual adventure, in the course of which he wrestled with a number of questions about race and national character, about the permanence of racial characteristics, about the sources of national unity, and about whether it would prove possible to forge a nation with a new identity out of the diverse European peoples that had poured into the New World. If he had not precisely formulated these questions before his journey, they nonetheless clearly were on his mind from...

    • 6 Politics: Order and Disorder in the New Republic
      (pp. 335-353)

      All the elements of Tocqueville’s later, fully developed political theory of democracy and of all he has to say about democracy and its prospects inDemocracy in Americaare to be found in the notes about democratic culture and institutions scattered throughout his notebooks. His curiosity ranged over every aspect of American life, but the notebooks make it clear that, apart from the American penal system, his attention was most focused on five matters: politics, religion, class in an egalitarian society, whether there was an American character or identity, and whether this striving, multifarious republic of competitive individuals would endure...

    • 7 A Dark Vision of Democracy’s Prospects
      (pp. 354-359)

      The question is, how did Tocqueville get from the observations, reflections, and judgments recorded in his notebooks, which can be regarded as a sketch of his first thoughts about American democracy, toDemocracy in Americaitself and to the darkening skies with which it ends? Three years intervened between his return to France and the publication ofDA I, another four before he completedDA II. During the book’s long gestation, further reading and study, debate with friends and colleagues, his crucial correspondence with Mill and Royer-Collard, and further dismaying experience of the culture and politics of bourgeois democratic France...

    • 8 The Democratic Psyche and the Hazards of Equality
      (pp. 360-365)

      Tocqueville’s exploration of the turbulent and paradoxical passional life of “democratic man” is a considerable work of the imagination and one of the achievements ofDemocracy in America. It provided him with some of his most important insights into the psychopolitics of the new world of equality. As the psychologist of democratic life, anatomizing the astonishing configurations of the tumultuous democratic psyche, intensely scrutinizing each “queer twist” of the “human heart,” his work displays the imaginative richness of Balzac’s LaComédie Humaine-imaginative in that Tocqueville’s psychology, or social psychology, was the least systematic and the least theoretical aspect of his...

    • 9 A Culture of Extremes: The Prospects for Freedom in a Culture Without Limits
      (pp. 366-377)

      Tocqueville’s ideas about the future of democracy are derived even more from his theoretical exploration of the probable lines of development of any future democratic culture than from his complex analysis of the democratic psyche. The former was in fact to a degree based on his analysis of what was likely to be permanent and what transient in the democratic “social state,” the base to the cultural superstructure. His observations-his painful experience-of the degradation of French culture also shaped his thinking about the future culture of democracy. In all this, he uncovered even more fully the hitherto secret or hidden...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 378-382)

    Tocqueville was convinced that the necessary antidote to the weaknesses of democracy-among them its permanent cultural and social disorder, its weak sense of a common good, the moral effects of hyperindividualism, the development of an anti-intellectual mass culture, its inability to make sacrifices for the long-range good-was an aristocracy of merit, rising from the people and chosen by the people, that would provide the needed countervailing guidance. But it was just such a democratic aristocracy, the sources and role of which he and John Stuart Mill had struggled to think through, that he found missing in the United States and...

  11. A Brief Chronological Narrative of the Life of Alexis de Tocqueville
    (pp. 383-394)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 395-420)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 421-428)
  14. Index
    (pp. 429-440)