Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty

Lucien Jaume
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Many American readers like to regard Alexis de Tocqueville as an honorary American and democrat--as the young French aristocrat who came to early America and, enthralled by what he saw, proceeded to write an American book explaining democratic America to itself. Yet, as Lucien Jaume argues in this acclaimed intellectual biography,Democracy in Americais best understood as a French book, written primarily for the French, and overwhelmingly concerned with France. "America," Jaume says, "was merely a pretext for studying modern society and the woes of France." For Tocqueville, in short, America was a mirror for France, a way for Tocqueville to write indirectly about his own society, to engage French thinkers and debates, and to come to terms with France's aristocratic legacy.

    By taking seriously the idea that Tocqueville's French context is essential for understandingDemocracy in America, Jaume provides a powerful and surprising new interpretation of Tocqueville's book as well as a fresh intellectual and psychological portrait of the author. Situating Tocqueville in the context of the crisis of authority in postrevolutionary France, Jaume shows that Tocqueville was an ambivalent promoter of democracy, a man who tried to reconcile himself to the coming wave, but who was also nostalgic for the aristocratic world in which he was rooted--and who believed that it would be necessary to preserve aristocratic values in order to protect liberty under democracy. Indeed, Jaume argues that one of Tocqueville's most important and original ideas was to recognize that democracy posed the threat of a new and hidden form of despotism.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4672-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    There is, in many respects, a Tocqueville enigma.

    Why did Tocqueville writeDemocracy in America? The question might seem incongruous.¹ In fact, it is the key to understanding both the work and the man. Today we know that America was not the sole subject of the book that Tocqueville published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. America was merely the pretext for studying modern society and the woes of France. What is more, the author’s intention remains ambiguous and controversial, as does the precise scope of the book he had in mind.Democracy in Americahas become a world...

  4. Part One. What Did Tocqueville Mean by “Democracy”?
    • [PART ONE Introducion]
      (pp. 15-20)

      The termdemocracyhas multiple meanings in Tocqueville’s work, as many commentators have pointed out. James Schleifer has identified as many as eleven.¹ Tocqueville’s apparent tolerance of ambiguity has to this day allowed countless interpreters to develop their own ideas about “democracy in Tocqueville” because the elasticity of the notion fosters the illusion of sharing the view of the author himself while encouraging interpretations that are to one degree or another anachronistic. A victim of his success (as great authors often are), Tocqueville is often assumed to have had prophetic powers that enabled him to speak of society as we...

    • 1 Attacking the French Tradition: Popular Sovereignty Redefined in and through Local Liberties
      (pp. 21-64)

      When Tocqueville decided to introduce the United States to the French public, he had no choice but to begin with what had been first the sphinx of the French Revolution and then the nightmare of the moderates: popular sovereignty. The fourth chapter of book 1 of the first volume ofDemocracy in Americawas devoted to this overwhelming idea: “Any discussion of the political laws of the United States has to begin with the dogma of popular sovereignty.”¹ The word “dogma” indicated how the question was to be approached. But this particular dogma gave rise to two very different religions,...

    • 2 Democracy as Modern Religion
      (pp. 65-81)

      Just as the first volume ofDemocracy in Americabegins more or less with the New England town, the second volume begins with the other question that Tocqueville regarded as crucial: that of public opinion conceived as a form ofbelief. The chapter in question is entitled “On the Principal Source of Beliefs among Democratic Peoples.”¹ This deserves to be read carefully, almost word by word, because in it Tocqueville sets forth one of his strongest intuitions, but in a complex style that proceeds from paradox to paradox.

      Tocqueville’s intuition is the following: that the “principal source” of what the...

    • 3 Democracy as Expectation of Material Pleasures
      (pp. 82-94)

      Most commentators on Tocqueville include equality as part of his definition of democracy, if they do not purely and simply equate the two. Hence it may seem surprising that the three elements of the definition of democracy I am using here are local power, the religion of the Public, and, now, the expectation of “material pleasures.” I do not include equality, even though this term is omnipresent in both volumes ofDemocracy in America.

      The reason for my choice is that equality is not a primary element in Tocqueville’s definition of democracy. It is rather atransversaltrait of human...

  5. Part Two. Tocqueville as Sociologist
    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 95-100)

      In becoming the theorist of what he decided to call “democracy,” Tocqueville also developed an expansive view of social life, as we have seen. He emphasized authority as intrinsic to society rather than imposed from outside, whether by religion (in the form of transcendence) or by an institution such as the state (in the classic sense of the term). Democracy for Tocqueville was both a “social state” and a political regime, a civil society and a government, because its unity depended, in a deep sense, on instances of authority within civil society itself. What were they? We have already considered...

    • 4 In the Tradition of Montesquieu: THE STATE-SOCIETY ANALOGY
      (pp. 101-105)

      Tocqueville is known to have read Montesquieu often, although opinions differ as to the time he spent on the history of the Romans and theEsprit des lois. Here, I am interested mainly in Tocqueville’s conviction that American society exhibited aunifiedspirit. This emerges clearly from a manuscript included in the Nolla edition ofDemocracy in America:

      There are a thousand ways to judge the social state and political laws of a people once one has thoroughly understood the various consequences that flow naturally from these two distinct things. A traveler’s very scrupulous observations can lead you to the...

    • 5 Counterrevolutionary Traditionalism: A MUFFLED POLEMIC
      (pp. 106-114)

      In the counterrevolutionary school, it remained an article of faith from the time of the Directory to the end of the nineteenth century that individualism is destructive of the social bond, that it is impossible to create a society from individual atoms. The Code Civil chopped society into little pieces, creating social fragmentation.¹ On this last point, Tocqueville was in total agreement: the “law of inheritance,” he said, should be placed “at the head of all political institutions” in both ancient and modern treatises on politics.² It explained everything about the democratic structure: in France, the Code Civil was a...

    • 6 The Discovery of the Collective
      (pp. 115-128)

      InDemocracy in America, what is properly called Tocqueville’s sociology stems from his conviction that the collective is a specific object of study because it obeys distinctive laws of its own. Here again, the initial impetus came from traditionalists such as Bonald, who opposed “man” and “society.” Bonald forcefully expressed what his adversary Maine de Biran would call his social metaphysics in the Chamber of Deputies on January 28, 1817, in a debate about freedom of the press:

      People knew then because they believed. They knew in religion, in morals, in politics, in the sciences of law and mores, and...

    • 7 Tocqueville and the Protestantism of His Time: THE INSISTENT REALITY OF THE COLLECTIVE
      (pp. 129-144)

      We have already seen how much importance Tocqueville attached to Protestantism. He saw it as the historical and cultural source of modern political democracy and believed that, in social terms, it contributed to the exercise of individual judgment that is political democracy’s indispensable complement. Yet his (embarrassed and anxious) recognition of Protestantism’s due did not lead him to accept the sociological axioms or epistemology of such leading Protestant writers as Alexandre Vinet and Benjamin Constant.¹ Indeed, Vinet saw what I have called the logic of the collective but vehemently refused to grant it legitimacy or, in the end, to analyze...

  6. Part Three. Tocqueville as Moralist
    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 145-146)

      There is today general agreement that Tocqueville’s view of America was that of a moralist. But what does the term “moralist” mean? According to the dictionary of the French Academy, a moralist is a writer who deals with mores. La Bruyère, a writer Tocqueville admired from the time he was a schoolboy (according to his friend Louis de Kergorlay¹), is a prime example of the type. By studying “characters” he was able to portray a concrete situation while at the same time capturing general truths about the human race.Les Caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle(Characters, or the...

    • 8 The Moralist and the Question of l’Honnête
      (pp. 147-158)

      Tocqueville the moralist addressed himself to legislators and reformers. Helvétius’s definition applies: “Moralists devote themselves to the study of the use that can be made of rewards [and punishments], and of how these can help to couple individual interest to the general interest. To achieve such a union is the ultimate goal that the moralist should set for himself.”¹

      This definition nicely captures the heart of Tocqueville’s concern with what he called democracy. He was not concerned simply with mores, or with the corruption of ancient or Christian virtue. He envisioned his subject in terms ofreconstituting the general interest....

    • 9 Tocqueville’s Relation to Jansenism
      (pp. 159-192)

      For generations now, scholars have been arguing that Tocqueville had deep sympathy for Pascal and perhaps for Jansenism. It should be noted, however, that when he wrote to Kergorlay that he lived “a little every day” with Pascal, Rousseau, and Montesquieu—in a passage that has been cited a hundred times over—he was simply repeating, literally, advice offered to him by his confidant two years earlier, in 1834.¹

      Still, the point is not to deny that Tocqueville had a personal interest in Pascal, even if it is impossible to say which edition he read.² It remains to be seen...

  7. Part Four. Tocqueville in Literature:: Democratic Language without Declared Authority
    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 193-198)

      There is a realquestionabout Tocqueville’s style and attitude toward literature. The question concerns both the author’s approach to his subject and his stance toward it.

      To begin with, he chose an ostensibly simple and transparent style of writing based on “natural” rules allegedly derived from the work of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century authors—authors whom Tocqueville regarded as representatives of an aristocratic society, or, in the case of the eighteenth century, as examples of the best possible confluence of aristocracy and democracy. In his eyes Voltaire was the greatest French writer, followed by Buffon. Applying this canon, which we might...

    • 10 Resisting the Democratic Tendencies of Language
      (pp. 199-225)

      Tocqueville commented frequently on his own practice of writing, mostly in his correspondence or in conversation with close friends such as Ampère, Kergorlay, Nassau Senior, and, late in life, Charles de Grandmaison. In a long letter to Charles Stöffels dated July 31, 1834, thus shortly before the appearance of the first volume ofDemocracy in America, he developed this theme; Marc Fumaroli has commented on it.¹ Tocqueville praised his friend for wanting “to work on his style,” an encouragement that he would have occasion to repeat often, because Stöffels’ vague, wordy letters irritated him. In the 1834 letter he recommended...

    • 11 Tocqueville in the Debate about Literature and Society
      (pp. 226-248)

      Mme de Staël wrote that “progress in literature [signifies] the perfection of the arts of thinking and expression.” From this we divine that we are no longer living in her world, which was also the world of Tocqueville. The word “literature” was then applied to all expressions of the life of the mind—with some hesitation in regard to natural science. Indeed, it was Mme de Staël’sDe la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutionsthat helped to stabilize this idea in France. It was a book that attempted to institutionalize literature as an activity that would bear...

  8. Part Five. The Great Contemporaries:: Models and Countermodels
    • 12 Tocqueville and Guizot: TWO CONCEPTIONS OF AUTHORITY
      (pp. 251-290)

      Schoolchildren are often asked to compare Corneille and Racine, who supposedly could not understand each other because the latter depicted men “as they are” and the former “as they ought to be.”¹ A similar exercise might be proposed for Tocqueville and Guizot, since both men represent the same important historical and intellectual moment and both are indispensable for understanding the French spirit. To be sure, they did not belong to the same generation: nearly twenty years separate the two men. Yet they continually observed each other, encountered each other in public life, and disappointed each other repeatedly. Although Tocqueville, the...

    • 13 Tutelary Figures from Malesherbes to Chateaubriand
      (pp. 291-318)

      We have already learned a great deal about Tocqueville’s social and intellectual milieu, enough to show that his attitude toward that milieu was compounded of allegiance alloyed with dissidence. Now it is time to look more carefully at important thinkers on the monarchical side, who served him as references, boundary markers, or counterexamples. First and foremost among these was Chateaubriand, whose legacy Tocqueville often found irritating but could not ignore. Intellectually, Chateaubriand helped to nurture Tocqueville’s intuition and what we might even call his personal myth, which can be summed up as follows: (1) the French monarchy wasdespotic, indeed...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 319-326)

    As is often the case with liberal thinkers (such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Constant), Tocqueville’s thought is truly a deconstruction, or at times a circumvention, of the idea ofsovereignty. This concept, which played such an important role in the building of the European nation-state, has the property of clearly defining the locus of power: the sovereign is he who can issue commands with the authority of law and who thus decides the specific content of the general interest at any given moment.

    As we have seen, however, Guizot, in theOrigines du gouvernement représentatif, showed what was paradoxical about...

  10. APPENDIX 1. The Use of Anthologies and Summaries in Tocqueville’s Time
    (pp. 327-327)
  11. APPENDIX 2. Silvestre de Sacy, Review of Democracy in America
    (pp. 328-334)
  12. APPENDIX 3. Letter from Alexis de Tocqueville to Silvestre de Sacy
    (pp. 335-336)
  13. Index
    (pp. 337-347)